Sunday, September 20, 2009


The Tyrees lived sorta on the outskirts of Paxton, in one of those old gray-weathered houses you see way off the road, with shadowy gray outbuildings and a gaggle of dogs to match. The yard ran mostly true to expectations, with several unseemly bits of rusting machinery or cars, a scattered collection of tools, battered toys and one incongruous thing of beauty---a gleaming bottletree.

That one bit of Beautiful in that devastated yard drew the eye, out of place and beguiling---every shade of blue and green glinted from the stubs of a big mimosa, whose lopped-off limbs were testament to a seldom-seen Ice Storm which had shut down the community for nine days three years ago, taking out power, turning out school, halting traffic and toppling trees burdened too far past bearing. Trees which did survive were shorn of their roundness, leaving flat-planed surfaces where the limbs held up as long as they could under the growing weight, then domino-collapsed upon each other in an avalanche of shattering crystal and crackling wood.

The mimosa, in Summer all tiny fern-leaves and powderpuff blossoms, had succumbed to the ice-weight all over, leaving an almost-round bare sculpture of shortened limbs, and piles of long slender poles which emerged from the melt like a glacier giving up its mammoth bones.

The bottles had been collected over the years---the sun-catching cobalt bottles from Milk of Magnesia and fancy-water from Hardy Lake Country Club's dumpster sprang up like a blue halo all over the tree, accented by a dozen or so slender Blue Nun winebottles, culled from the town dump. And in amongst the stunning blues, the pale Co-Colas, with the punch of Mountain Dew or Seven-Up green. An amber collar of wider-mouth, stout-statured Garrett Snuff bottles ringed the tree on the stubs of the thicker lower limbs.

And in that tatty yard, with its blown landscape of rust and neglect and other trees and bushes punctuated by the inflating flutters of white plastic store-bags, with a half-dozen tossed Pampers wind-scooted up against buildings and bushes, that blue-jeweled tree stood worthy of Hesperides, gleaming in the sun.

Nobody in town knew just which of the Tyrees had such a hand, such a longing for just one thing pretty, but town notion had it that it was the second-oldest Tyree boy, Aden, who had been painting the fairy-tale chalk murals on the board at Paxton Elementary since he was five and had to stand on a chair to finish the castle tower. He was eleven when the first person driving past on that long gravel road noticed the gleams of blue in that dismal clutter. Now that his whipcord frame allowed him to do the work of a man with his Dad and brothers, and the tree had slowly become encrusted with sapphire glints from all sides, he spent any free time keeping to the woods and the fields with a book and a sandwich, passing his days in dreams-of-better and forays into Camelot and Middle Earth and Narnia, living through Heroes, longing for MORE.

He'd sprouted that beautiful beacon in his wilderness, just to look at.

And the Thorntons---five children in that small shotgun house not too much farther down the road, the gray-weathered board-and-batten house with the rickety porches fore and aft and a bathroom finally added in a section of the back porch. The ceiling of the bathroom was left as is---simple painted rafters with the roofing nails punched through like symmetrical stalactites, and it was always a surprise to wake in the night, go into the bathroom, and hear the rain drumming on the roof.

The front porch was long-ago-screened, but romping, wrestling children had punched great gaps into the mesh, and the flappy screendoor sagged a wedge-gap top and bottom. Meadie Thornton tried, she did---she planted hollyhocks up against the side walls of the house, with smaller flowers in front, and big smooth clunks of river rocks bordering the beds. She’d had her oldest boy cut a tire into neat pointy edges, and turn it inside out. Whitewashed, it made a quite creditable planter for the red petunias; one planter led to two, and soon the place was garnished in about half-a-dozen places with round pinking-sheared white planters of bright flowers. Two of them were giant-sized, due to her bartering a shoat for two old used tractor tires.

Hoot’s only misgivings, save for his grimace at all the fancifying of the place, was that all that whitewash would be better used on the chicken-house and the toolshed. Since neither edifice had ever known paint of any kind, nor had it occurred to Hoot to neaten them up any, Meadie had tartly replied that the last ten-gallon bucket of lime had been gathering dust out back for a coon’s age. It had been sitting there in the shed, still sealed up from back when Hoot's Daddy had bought three of them at the auction at Khinnl’s Feed Store when O-Man Khinnl died and his grown kids squabbled about their inheritance to beat the band, selling off house, land and store as fast as they could grab the money.

The other drums of lime had been used for sanitizing the outhouse. Since that shining spot had long been dozed over and filled in, in favor of the new bathroom at the end of the back porch, Meadie felt vindicated in using up all that old lime in any way she wanted, and whitewash it was. She broom-swabbed all the tree-trunks in the yard, as well, looping a string neatly at the height of her yardstick and painting a razor-margin deftly with an old paintbrush.

And if whitewash would have clung to the enameled outside of coffeecans and big #10 cans from Showboat Pork & Beans, she’d have tarted them right up, as well, for all the coleus and purple verbena which graced the weathered porches and rickety steps of the house. She wanted---with every breath of her 108-pound-body---she wanted things pretty. And neat, and clean and any other adjective which would describe a serene, pleasantly tidy household. That it was a losing battle, except in bright bits and pieces, never occurred to her; every day was a prospect, and she took it on by sheer will and a longing which eclipsed the labor.

Her sensibilities even led her to hang her clothes on the line in neat rows of succeeding sizes, and when she’d done all the whites, she’d hang all the underwear neatly, then scurry to flip and pin a just-washed wet sheet over the entire line. Nobody was looking at HER family’s underdrawers, no sir, not on OR off. And they’d all dry nicely in the sun by evening, anyway.

The tires and trees had been spruced up four times over the succeeding years, the last two with sacks of paid-for lime of a new kind, and the porch screens were new plastic mesh, stretched tight and mosquito-proof, with a new strong-springed screendoor front and back on the house.

And Meadie had begun Painting-by-Number in her spare time.
Both families struggled---with Life and Circumstance and plain old hard labor, but Meadie Thornton, too, longed for MORE, and brightened her corner where she could, with what she had---tractor tires, coffeecans and leftover-lime whitewash.

And a young boy, meant for better things, had stepped out into his own ravaged yard and flung out one visible-for-miles bright blue flare of hope with a treeful of gleaming bottles.


Anonymous said...


I love it...the descriptions...I could see it all. Tugs at my heartstrings for those who desire beauty and work with what they have. I have truly been blessed in my life.

I went to Haiti with our daughter to get a little boy and girl they adopted. Haiti, the poorest coluntry in the Western Hemisphere. Never had I been to a third world country. The filth, the starvation, the poverty, the need, yet these people decorate every wall, tree, bit of ground. It was so colorful, so amazing the hope expressed in their art, the desire to bring some beauty into their life. And they use whatever is available, mostly their ingenuity, their talent, their ability. Amazing. Thank you for calling that remembrance to mind today.

Love ya, Janie

Kim Shook said...

Oh, Rachel! What a feast! You've made me greedy for more of these folks. I love Meadie and her whitewash and love of beauty. You tell her those cans don't need whitewash - I've seen 'em just like she has them - in decorator magazines :-)!