Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With Apologies to Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, and Jean Shepherd...

CBS Evening News for Friday, May 19, 1972

Headline: Roadside Garden
(Studio) Surrey County, Virginia, has unusual traveler's rest point. REPORTER: Walter Cronkite
(Surrey County, Virginia) Picnic tables laden with flowers, fresh tomatoes, with 13-acre garden nearby. Walter Mizenheimer, former nurseryman, creates wayside stop in woods next to his house. [MIZENHEIMER - does this to make world a better place. Offers to give site to state, but is refused.] REPORTER: Charles Kuralt

The above abstract, gleaned from a website run by Vanderbilt University which apparently hosts a repository for ancient news videos, is the only reference I can find to an event which surfaces annually in my personal memory. If I wanted to pay $37, I could own a copy of the original story, but since that seems exhorbitant for 4 minutes of footage, I'll fill in the blanks myself.

Scents can most definitely trigger memory, and so, I find, can flowers. This week the first of the Lycoris species, a probable sterile hybrid currently called L. squamigera, began blooming, and it brought back to mind an episode of family history which must have occurred almost exactly 36 years ago. One common name for Lycoris squamigera (shared with Amaryllis belladonna, which doesn't grow well here, although its hybrid, Amarcrinum, does) is "Naked Ladies", but neither these trustworthy bulbs nor any of their names was familiar to my grandmother Birdie, aka "MaMa", who ran a very exclusive camp for several weeks each summer (only her grandchildren were invited).

Most days the entertainment options included working in the garden, shelling butterbeans and peas, helping to pluck chickens for dinner, dropping ripe watermelons to break them open and eating them where they fell, and making fanciful creatures (MaMa called them "cukie dolls") from the oversized cucumbers and squash that we'd missed picking when they were edible. Other activities included emptying the five gallon bucket that served as our toilet on the nights when we slept out back in the old country store (it was operated by my great-grandfather before any of us existed) which had been converted into a "clubhouse" for our use; and the traditional Sunday morning wallow in the mud puddles created by tractor tires in the fields. This usually occurred about 10 minutes before we needed to be dressed and ready for church, having been carefully scrubbed and groomed the night before. About once each week, however, we took a field trip, usually ending up someplace "educational".

This particular July day found us crammed into the Delta 88 with my Grandmother at the wheel and her sidekick, cleaning lady, and assistant kid-wrangler Mary Daniels riding shotgun. We were fixing to go to the newly opened Yorktown Victory Center (my grandfather was a concrete construction foreman and had supervised the building of all the curbs in the complex), by way of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center, which is now the Virginia Living Museum. I don't remember much about this trip, other than eventually posing for pictures next to the curbs which Grandaddy "built", but I do remember what happened when we stopped for lunch.

Somehow (it now seems obvious that she had seen the news story referenced above), MaMa had heard about an amazing picnic spot in Surrey which was owned and cared for by a Mr. Mizenheimer. Sure enough, when we pulled off what I now realize must have been route 10, which hugs the southern bank of the James River all the way to Richmond, we spotted a neatly planted garden full of azaleas (I could identify them even out of bloom, despite my being only ten - that should have been a warning to somebody...) which were punctuated by spectacular clumps of the pink lilies which I many years later discovered to be Lycoris squamigera. My grandmother hopped out of the car, opened the "boot", and displayed remarkable willpower as her eyes fell first on the gorgeous blooms, then on the shovel that lived in the trunk of her car and served to dig up anything and everything she found desirable growing along the roadside. She was tempted, I could tell, but must have thought better of committing larceny in front of her grandchildren, since she reached instead for the first of several big cooking pots which had been stowed in the trunk.

My grandmother was never one to travel with sandwiches, chips, etc. - her picnics were pretty much the same as the meals she served at home, only outdoors. Consequently we never left on a trip of any duration without an entire country ham or a "passel" of fried chicken, along with a big pot of butterbeans, in the car. It was a production, but somehow she and Mary Daniels wrestled everything out of the car and over to a clean, shady table, on which had been left about a dozen homegrown tomatoes and a bucket of fresh flowers. Granted, we were probably the first visitors ever to leave more tomatoes than we found (we had brought our own from my granddad's endless supply), but we appreciated the thought, nonetheless. We finished lunch, and as MaMa and Mary Daniels (she was like "Cher" or "Beyonce", only the opposite - we never said one name without saying the other), were gathering things up, out of the "jungle" ambled Mr. Mizenheimer himself.

The affable old gentleman - he walked with a cane, which to us signified that he was really old - and my grandmother immediately struck up a conversation, and after some not-so-surreptitious prodding by Mary Daniels, we thanked him profusely for providing us with such a lovely place to eat lunch and play for a while. Things didn't begin to go south until the conversation turned to gardening, as was inevitable, given the casting. MaMa had complimented all of the plants she recognized, though, its being July, there wasn't much in bloom; Mr. Mizenheimer then, quite innocently, as it turns out, asked, "And what did you think of all my naked ladies?"

My grandmother stiffened and instinctively grabbed as many grubby little hands and elbows as she could gather up. "Well, we have a long trip ahead of us...got to get going. Thank you so much." She had gotten all cold and formal, and I'd never seen her walk backwards with such purpose.

Mary Daniels began grumbling under her breath, "Old goat...done taken a shine to Ms. Birdie...old goat..." and herded us into the car. This may be only the imagination of memory, but I think the tires screeched as my grandmother floored the Oldsmobile. She was obviously flustered, and Mary Daniels continued to carry on about that "old goat" trying to "move in on" my grandmother. We didn't talk much about it again, since we were all embarrassed on so many different levels.

Many years later, I was given what would become one of my favorite books, "Passalong Plants" by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender. I learned an incredible amount from this fun, informative guide to southern flora and folk art, but it also served to vindicate Mr. Mizenheimer long (I'm sure) after his passing. I tried to explain the situation to MaMa, and even gave her a copy of the book, but due to a combination of factors - her greatly impaired hearing, for which she steadfastly refused any treatment, her foggy memory, and, most of all, her need to be right, she never, to my knowledge, took the poor, would-be philanthropist off of her own personal sexual predator registry. I think of him every year when my own "naked ladies" start to bloom.


Cosmo said...

What a great story. How did you ever find the original newscast?

Ranunculus and I did a rain dance today. Hope it works.

Les, Zone 8a said...

What a great tale. I have many special associations with plants, but doubt they could be told so well.

Phillip said...

That is a great story. Mine are blooming too. In fact, I just took some photographs of them yesterday.

Jeff said...

Thanks, gang. Researching tidbits like that is amazing with search engines - I'd be a genius if we'd had them when I was in school! I'm glad I took the pictures when I did, because we had some big storms yesterday that blew all the Lycoris sideways and left a ginormous limb hanging like the sword of Damocles over the path in the backyard. I'm blaming Ranunculus and his raindance!

Cosmo said...

Ooo, sorry, Jeff-I meant to write earlier and ask how you all fared--the news this morning said 5" in Norfolk--we had only about 1/2 an inch up here-wasn't sure what it was like where you are. I hope the ginormous limb comes down safely and that your Lycoris right themselves. I will speak sternly with Ranunculus--he clearly needs to raindance more carefully.

Eve said...

That is a funny story. LOL..What's in a name, huh? I have never see a naked lady flower but I will keep my eyes out for that book. Felder Rushing is from my neck of the woods. I listent to him on radio on Saturday and read his post in our Power Company newspaper, "Today in Mississippi" every month. It sounds like a good book.

Zephyr said...

What a wonderful story, Jeff...i love reading your tales from your youth.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This is the funniest story I have read in some time. I can so see it happening. I am happy that I followed the link from Dirt Therapy to your hilarious memory.

I think this resonates so well with me because I can remember when someone started talking to me about Naked Ladies and I thought "good grief". Now they are one of my treasured late summer flowers.

Thanks again for sharing this funny gardening story.

Jay Briar said...

Jeff, I just watched the Charles Kuralt report on this garden and was googling around trying to find out where it was and if it was still there. I'm going on a road trip that will take me near Surry and my curiosity is piqued. I know from the story that it is off Route 10 (as you remembered) but where exactly, I do not know.

The story is included on the first disc of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set #1: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Charles-Kuralt-Set/dp/B001V7YZDO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1279386122&sr=8-1

Can you help me find it or what is left of it? In his story, he said a woman took it over after the old man died, but that has been 30 years now.

Jeff said...

Hi Jay - Great to know about the story's being included on the dvd; I'll have to track that down. As far as I know, the garden doesn't exist any longer. It seems to me that it was located right on Route 10, in the section somewhere between Smithfield and Surry, but in many years of driving that route as an adult, I've never seen any indication of its existence again. If you DO find it, I'd love to know its location as well!