Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal


Ginger Manley

One of the joys of getting older—and there are some joys despite the achy, breaky joints and daily new medical woes—is getting dotty. One of my recently departed family members had a corner on "dottiness" before she died, specializing in dramatizing the "dotty Englishwoman" which was easy for her since she was British and lived in the English countryside. I am delighting in some of my own attempts at dottiness, which causes some of the younger ones in the family to shake their heads but garners laughs and "yesses" from many of my peers.

So, this past New Year's Day, I went another step down the dotty road. I created a new New Year's Day tradition for myself. I shredded all my kith and kin and put them into my compost pile.

Growing up in East Tennessee it was required that on New Year's Day everyone eat at least one black-eyed pea, a bite of pork, preferably hog jowl, and some turnip greens for good luck. Starting when I was about ten we also had to watch the entire Rose Parade on black and white TV, a relatively new fad for our part of Appalachia in the 50's. For the TV part, my family had to initially go to the home of a friend who bought one of the first of these devices. My own family did not succumb to the purchase of a tube until I was thirteen.

Nowadays, I rarely watch TV, but I have become am an avid—"some might say "addictive" or "compulsive"—gardener. Those who live in my neighborhood or who drive by our house and see me working in the yard, know that I am also extremely committed to cheap gardening. So much so that I now have the schedule of the market around the corner for when they flatten and recycle their cardboard shipping boxes. You can bet that each Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday after 12:00 noon I will drive my little red pickup truck to their loading dock and haul home as many of their boxes as I can. This corrugated wood product makes a great base for flower beds and edging, and in a yard full of as much limestone as mine, one can never find enough dirt.

For more than a year I have been asking my next door neighbor to save her newspapers for me. Those, when cleared of the slick pages, are carefully added to my own and piled on top of the cardboard, then the stack is covered with pine bark mulch (which unfortunately I do have to buy, but it is a very inexpensive commodity) or once a year I can use the exquisite pine needles that fall from the huge pines on the back property line of our yard. Depending on the amount of rainfall and the season of the year in about three months all that glorious "brown stuff" will disintegrate into wonderful soil that nurtures the baby plants that I laboriously have nursed in my little nursery garden.

I will hardly ever actually buy a plant from a grower unless that plant is guaranteed to reproduce under almost any conditions or if it makes its own seed so that I can help with the artificial insemination. I scower my yard and that of my friends for any tiny specimen plants that might have been carried there by a bird, then I dig it up and let it prosper for six months or so in its own special intensive care unit before I transplant it into my garden.

So, it should really come as no surprise that on New Year's Day I also began adding my friends and families to my compost pile. I have been composting for more than 25 years—never anything fancy—just an enclosure of chicken wire in a discreet area near the back deck where I can pitch the vegetable and tea and coffee remains from my daily life and let them decompose into the most wonderful loamy rich black gold that can be found anywhere. But even as dedicated as I am I had never resorted to using my friends' remains to enrich the pile.

I do admit that there was great glee for a year or two after I retired, when I shredded all those professional papers that I had kept neatly filed for almost forty years. Every seminar I had ever attended; every university lecture that I had ever delivered; every letter received and bill paid—they all got their due in the shredder next to my desk and were carried by the basketful to the compost and dumped. To think of my professional life being in shreds and the rain coming down to moisten the pile and the sun to heat it up and the bugs starting to attack it all, was mulch for my soul. The patient records, from my years as a nurse-psychotherapist, didn't get shredded, but they are in deep storage under the watch of people who do that for a living so that I no longer have to be their guardian. It is very freeing to no longer be encumbered by papers that attest to one's competency. I can just be "me" without the documents to prove that I am anything other than "me." (I did keep my birth certificate and passport, in case you think that I may have totally lost all sense of logic.)

But still in all these years and with all these gleeful gardening moments, I had never considered depositing my friends and families in my bin. During the recent Christmas holidays two events occurred that prompted my actions. I completed reading the novel, Broken for You, the story of a family of choice and their life's work of creating mosaic art from the broken china of tragedy. I didn't really expect to like this book, which was loaned to me by a special friend, but I was grabbed by the meta messages in each scenario. On the day that I finished reading it, by coincidence (or maybe not) a new member of my son's blended family recounted her recent painful loss of six dinner plates from a set of china that she had received as a wedding present almost forty years earlier. It seems that the marriage lasted only a few years but the twelve-piece china set, of which each plate had cost "more than $75 at the time," was hugely valued by her and she had devoted lots of energy over the years to their safe care. When her nine-year-old grandson slipped on ice while carrying the plates from her car into her daughter's house where they would be used again on this recent Christmas Eve, she was devastated.

I have spent a good deal of time over the last five years helping several elderly relatives part with their goods of a lifetime. Some of these goods were never really liked or valued in the first place and were easy to dispose of, but others were lovingly fingered and their stories retold, while I began to weave my heart around the treasure and take it home to live with me. Now my home is bulging with the treasures of my family's past, and I am trying to remember the stories to pass on to the next recipients. So this year, after the Christmas cards and letters from my friends and families were read and reread and the news digested and absorbed, I decided to do away with my tradition of saving the cards and letters to enjoy later in the year as I have been used to doing over the years. That way, I had always reasoned, I could have a little of each to savor as the year went by.

But I don't have room for any more "stuff" and the thought that I myself might pass on and my children would be left to sort out all the past Christmas letters pushed me to do what I did. I shredded them—every one of them—all the cute poems that my friends and their children wrote and the stories of the wonderful trips that my relatives took, and the sadness that some of them experienced.

All of it went through my shredder and then in the midst of a sometimes driving rain, I carried out two full wastebaskets and dumped them over the deck rail into my compost bin. A little later on I added my tea leaves from afternoon tea, then the detritus from supper salads, then the morning after I threw the coffee grounds on top, and later that day I added the trimmings from the root vegetables that I put in my soup stock. I think the worms are happy! And in about three months, when Spring breaks across middle Tennessee and I put my pitchfork into that wonderful pile of loam, I want my friends and family to know that I am drawing from their hopes and losses and joys and tears and that their good energy has been interred in the soil of my Franklin home and is giving life to new plants and new dreams! And hopefully, I am another step down the road towards dottiness!


Ginger Manley is a seventh-generation Tennessean, who resides with her husband in Williamson County. After forty years in health care, the last twenty-five of which she specialized as a Certified Sex Therapist, Ginger has recently closed her professional practice to pursue a new career as a writer. Her four grandchildren provide rich experiences for her personal essays, and her years of clinical practice and life in general are nourishing the background for a fictional trilogy Ginger is writing about sex, God, and dancing, and the redemption of three southern women. She has completed her first novel.

© Ginger Manley

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012