The Cracker Queen - Lauretta Hannon  


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 afghan.

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 beamed.

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.

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