Grandma’s lesson for our time

1969ish Flossie & NJC crop

My grandmother, Flossie Egan Craig, and I in 1969.

Fifty-three years ago, my mother watched news coverage of the war zone her hometown had become.

My grandmother, in her 70s, lived alone in the same house there on Cruse Street. Detroit was burning with arson fires, July heat, and years of anger stoked by injustice and fear. Mom was hours away in Indianapolis with a 6-month-old baby (me). I don’t know how long it took before she knew Grandma Flossie and the rest of our family and friends were safe in a city that suddenly and frighteningly wasn’t theirs.

Flossie Craig in front of 16260 Cruse copy (1)

Grandma Flossie in front of her home on Cruse Street in Detroit in the mid-1940s.

Over five days, 43 people were killed, 1,189 were injured, and hundreds of buildings were burned.

Only later did Mom learn that while the worst of the action was happening outside her door, Flossie played hymn after hymn on the piano, singing at the top of her lungs.

Her African American next-door neighbors, who were under their beds, could hear it.

Flossie was the only grandparent with whom I shared any earth time, and then only three years. The memories I do have of her, family stories such as the one above, and her abiding faith continue to inspire me.

Civil unrest is perhaps a poor comparison to a global pandemic, but I think my grandmother would handle it in much the same way. In a threatening situation, she offered her all to God, creating a bright sphere of protective energy with her music. That energy expanded with every note to surround her modest brick house and those nearby.

We humans have always known the power of sound and song to heal and unify. Whether it’s a lullaby, a protest song belted through tears, or a national anthem sung in unison, music raises our vibration and creates a powerful energy. Does it kill viruses, stop bullets, alleviate shortages, or put out fires? No. But it sure can change the atmosphere that produces and responds to all of these.

I don’t know if “How Can I Keep from Singing?” was one of the hymns my grandmother sang during those trying days. But I think it fits for ours, so I include the Enya version below.

May we, in today’s tumult and strife, hear and join in that “real, though far-off hymn” — with enough strength for the neighbors to hear.

 

When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

Saying it with flowers

bouquet-rose-leaf-wooden-ants

Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.