he Weed Lady of West Alexandria
by Grace Fleming
She was a funny lady, my mother, both funny ha-ha and funny funny .
She had grown up in West Virginia, running the wild hills and enjoying
dangerous adventures that involved big snakes, rushing rivers, and tall
cliffs, the kinds of adventures we would never allow little girls of today.
That wild spirit stayed with her all of her days, and now that I think
about it, it seems that my favorite moments with her consisted of mostly
unsettling moments that other, more ordinary people might take measures
to avoid. There was that time, for instance, we found ourselves dodging
bullets because the splendid blackberry patch she had discovered, and had
been so excited to show me, turned out to be smack in the middle of a shooting
range. We crept along a hilltop like little gallery ducks until we made
it back to her car safely and then burst into uncontrollable giggles.
Then there were the many, many driveway scenes where I slouched behind
her in humiliation, following her back to her big black Buick, as she stomped
away in a huff from a yard sale lady she had just offended. “She's insane
for trying to sell that junk at those prices,” she'd yell, wheeling around
and thrusting her hands on her hips before I could beg her back into the
car. “It's all trash!” she'd get in before the door slammed. But we wouldn't
be back in the car two minutes before we'd start to giggle again. Then
we'd be searching the telephone poles for more yard sale signs, making
middle-of-road U-turns whenever necessary, because old-timey toasters and
waffle irons were like precious gems to her.
Nature was her passion. She loved birds and trees and rocks (she had a
dog once who also loved rocks and he always carried one around in his mouth—it
was clearly a match made in heaven). Bus most of all, she loved weeds.
She loved to study them, collect them, make medicines with them, and mostly
to eat them. She was notorious for frying up those grotesque gobs of green
stuff that she mixed with scrambled eggs or simply plopped between two
pieces of bread and complemented with an onion slice.
She was a little defensive about this passion of hers, this appreciation
for some of nature's offerings that others scoffed at. She knew her daughters
made jokes about her unusual appetite for the stuff that others mowed over,
but that didn't faze her. Instead, she scoffed right back at us. “You'll
be sorry you don't know how to live off the land one day,” she'd always
warn us. I'm not sure what sort of catastrophic event she envisioned that
might thrust us back to hunter-gathering days, but I did try her freakish
green dishes from time to time. I have to admit, they were really not so
bad at all.
I never really appreciated the trouble she went to in order to support
her habit, until one particular visit I made during a beautiful late summer
week. We woke up early, of course, so she could appreciate the brisk morning
air and the twittering birds who breakfasted on the leftovers scattered
about the yard.
“It's time for our morning walk,” she announced while I sat on the couch
enjoying my own custom that involved a cup of hot milky coffee and a warm
I snapped out of my morning trance to see my mother standing in the doorway,
hands on hips again. She was decked in a ratty, bulky, blue sweater, knee-length
skort (for reaching and bending), and mud-crusted rubber boots that knew
the routine. All this was eclipsed, however, by the big orange, floppy,
hand-crocheted hat, obviously designed by the owner for chilly mornings
just like this. The trademark earflaps and the decorative ball on top gave
her away. “Hurry up and get dressed before people start to wake up,” she
urged. It seemed like a harmless statement at the time.
I sat frozen for a second. “Sure, I'm coming,” I said with all the enthusiasm
I could muster.
We weren't outside five minutes before she shot away from the sidewalk
for the first time. She dashed across somebody's yard, and I'm certain
it was the yard of someone I had known in high school, heading straight
for a green patch beneath a living room window. “Where are you going?” I
blurted in near panic. My eyes scanned the windows frantically while my
mother bent to uproot something.
“They'll never use this,” she replied. “They don't know what they have
here.” She came walking back to the sidewalk whacking the dirty roots of
three plants against her skort leg.
“But you just can't march around peoples' yards . . .” I tried to protest,
but something told me it was no use. She'd probably been doing it for years.
“Of course I can,” she explained. “Otherwise it would all go to waste.”
We continued our walk around my old hometown, raiding the yards of old
boyfriends, teachers, and prom queens for an hour or so. By the time we
rounded the last alleyway, she had two fists full of weeds and her pockets
were bulging with ill begotten apples. “It's been a good morning,” she
Yes, I had to admit, it was sort of fun. I was looking forward to the
fried pies she might make with the apples I, myself, had pilfered from
Mitzi Bellar's house (lead cheerleader, 1979).
It's been four years now since that outing. My visits to West Alexandria
come less frequently now, since my mother died a few years back. I still
have plenty of family there, but my old hometown seems to be different
now. The sidewalks and houses don't have the same appeal they used to have;
the yards don't seem as welcoming or neighborly to me. I don't know, the
whole town just seems to be sort of gloomy and, well, . . . overgrown.