Always Leave a Place Nicer
Picnicking was a regular family event for us. Each July in the late 1940's, the DeVaults descended on Hungry Mother Park State Park in Marion, Virginia for a grand reunion of grandparents, the aunts, uncles, cousins and more distant relatives. The first cousins shared fried chicken, coleslaw, lemonade, and peach pie around a wooden picnic table near the adults'. Then we impatiently waited for the hour to drag by before we could go swimming. When the hour was almost up, Mother would tell us, "Pick up all the litter you can find around your table." "But we didn't have any potato chips! That's not our bag." "Pick it up any way, " she'd say, "Always leave a place cleaner than you found it."
When my family left Gramma and Papa Joe's house to begin the long drive back home to New England, a box of ham-biscuits was in the car - a 1949 Packard. Mother and Daddy always stopped at the bus station in Wytheville to fill their thermos with hot black coffee and to buy a Dr. Pepper for me. Then the search for the "right" picnic table would begin. It had to be in the shade. It had to be far enough off of the road. And it had to be relatively clear of litter for two reasons. Where there was litter, there would be bees. And, of course, we would have to pick up all the litter around the picnic site if we stopped there to eat! Whether we visited a campsite, a state park, or a swimming area, Mother always reminded us to leave the place nicer than we'd found it.
That's probably why she loved to garden. Her flower gardens always caused people to slow down to admire the tulips or the pansies or the dahlias. It was not just that she had a "green thumb". She was Demeter greeting Persephone: she cloaked the earth in a rich green; she spread her arms, and apple trees blossomed.
I cannot work in the garden without seeing my mother in my mind's eye. She brushes a lock of silver hair from her forehead with the back of her gloved hand, leaving a trail of soil in its place. She sighs, smiles and stretches. "Well, I'll leave this little piece of earth prettier than I found it."
Like my mother, I enjoy gardening, but I don't have her talent for creating a lovely landscape. Weeds, moss and sprouting acorns eagerly make their homes among the bleeding hearts and forget-me-nots in my garden. Grand family reunions in south-western Virginia have been replaced by weddings and funerals. Route 11 (the Lee Highway) is no longer the main road across Virginia, and although picnic tables still exist along the road, they are becoming an increasingly rare sight, accompanied by overflowing trash cans and surrounded by litter.
My mother's words still echo in my heart. "Leave a place better than you found it." It's my voice that calls out at the end of a camping trip, "Pick up the cigarette butt anyway. We can't leave this campsite until all the litter is picked up." I attempt to keep the garden a pleasant place to spend time, but I don't have my mother's gift. I've found another way to try to make a place a little better than I found it. I am a storyteller. When we listen to each others' stories, we learn about each other. We create a place where people communicate, share ideas, and realize their common interests. We make our communities into better places.