An Arbor in the Desert for Poets

In the place where trumpet vines bloomed in the desert, an arbor hung over some children while words danced poetry above their heads.

Seated there in the shade on hard wooden benches, their small fingers curled tight around fat pencils, thin pencils, crayons too, they crafted rhymes, for even children, especially children, are poets. Unrelenting Arizona sun thwarted by a leafy cover, they were content with this happy art of words. They batted the occasional fly and bee, and birds joined too — a little nest up in the corner of the beams — and all around was a rosy glow.

My mom built this arbor herself, a crude frame of worn, untreated timber just waiting to sliver anyone who rubbed the wrong way. It seemed spacious as a child, but really it was only about a 10 by 12 foot structure. Rustic, but refuge, in this Sulphur Spring Valley. She fought nature and place to create this haven, and being such a small woman, this was a herculean task. She was a transplant from the east, and if she could try to grow in a desert, why, too, shouldn’t these flowers bloom and this arbor give shade?

Trumpet vines crept together with wisteria and honeysuckle. Dominated by the flamboyant and vigorous bright orange trumpets, these vines twisted an artist’s canvas over the entire arbor, magnificent leafy green and colorful, which surely unbeknownst caused poetic thoughts to stir.

It was the summer of 1978, and I was eight years old. My mother, who loved poetry and words as life itself, decided to form The Little Rimers. It was my sister Heather and me and about six other neighbor children, and this was about the best thing my mother did for me in my whole life.

Big canning jars of sun tea for the kids, sweetened just right — I’d watch it sit out to brew and that was nearly as good as its refreshment — small tea cookies, and handmade cloth-bound books for each child to write her rhyming words there in the arbor. There were haikus and acrostics, riddles and limericks, and all sorts of silliness.

I wrote about Christmas and Thanksgiving and Shoes. Theresa’s poem about a hunter cat was so good I was sure she’d copied it from somewhere. And never could I have imagined that this little book from the arbor would carve out such a substantial memory, and I wonder if any of those other children remember too?

Before we moved to this place, we lived in Tucson, where I was born, about an hour northwest. There, my mom belonged to a poetry group called the Rimers of Tucson, and as far as I know, it was the only time in her life that she had a “social network” or group of friends. I mostly remember, in addition to numerous white-haired ladies with elegant speech, being locked out of the house during poetry meetings that my mom hosted, confined to play in the back yard, possibly even harnessed to a tree, but on at least one occasion I snuck in through an open window.

I was born during this poetic and productive period in Tucson, and even named after one of these poetry group ladies. But my dad relocated our family and here in this remote desert place, far from city life, it was just us children for her, so she created the Little Rimers. (I know, it’s not spelled properly, it was meant to be that way.)

My sister Nancy, she hated to write poetry. My mom would demand poetry, telling her as a little girl — you can’t come out of your room until you’ve written four lines. She’d get so angry, being forced to write poetry, and so she hated it. I never knew this until Nancy told me recently, because I only had this lovely memory of writing poetry in the arbor. Nancy, being seven years older than me — a teenager at this time — had no use for rhyming with eight-year-olds.

After that summer in the arbor, it gradually fell into neglect over the ensuing years, like its poetry was all used up and the last orange trumpet had blown its horn. I wonder if the verse of the summer of ’78 was a moment like the Isabella, the rare butterfly in the French film Le Papillon? The character called Julien, the old grandfather figure, said in response to little Elsa’s sadness about the brief life span of the butterfly (three days, three nights), “It’s a life. A butterfly’s life.”

It really may not seem like much, an arbor in the desert, but well, it is my life and my arbor — and poetry. I heard of a rare flower that bloomed once every 30 years, whereupon the plant would die but leave behind several smaller plants which then would flower after a few more decades. Sometimes, rare and beautiful things are like that, and quite unforgettable.

You may also enjoy these posts about my Arizona childhood:

The Clothesline

Thanking God for Mrs. Young

My Reflection in the Dirty Pane Glass

I Am From

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8 Responses to An Arbor in the Desert for Poets

  1. heather says:

    Ahhhhh, Jenny…… I too remember the arbor and the trumpet vines. I recently toured a winery and when I saw this beautiful trumpet vine in full bloom it took me back and I took many photos of it out of nostalgia. I also enjoyed the poetry and have continued to write poetry since. I do remember that Nancy hated it, it was just not in her personality to enjoy that creative process, I can inderstand her frustration with being forced to do something that was not in her nature.

    I remember every section and corner of Mom’s little garden, we helped her weed, plan and plant the whole thing. The huge willow tree in one corner, the arbor in another, the stone pillar arrangements in another and the hedge planted all the way around it with a walkway through the middle and two white wooden arches at the entrances to this walkway at either end. The mint patch was along one side and the scent of it was glorious along with the honeysuckle. I still have my Little Rimers book, in a box with a few other childhood keepsakes, like the children’s book mom had published that is inscribed to me.

    We spent more than just hours writing poetry in that arbor, I would develop my art and drawing there, we helped mom put together the art projects she would enter in the county fair, and it was where I learned how to make dolls out of flowers. It was also our escape from the reality the rest of the ranch had for us. We could pretend we were in another world there……and for some brief moments, we almost were.

  2. Jen says:

    Heather–thank you for filling in some missing memories of what stood where in Mom’s garden!! You really have an amazing mind. The mint, yes, that was lovely and to this day mint is an absolute favorite. Can you believe that these plants were like little angels helping us along the way? That sentiment can be taken the wrong way, I know not by you, but it’s truly a God-given gift, that garden.

    I have a Little Rimers book, too, and read through it again before posting this. I’m so glad you have one, too! The artwork from us children included with the poems is too precious! In one poem you talk about being the “Queen of Heaven,” and truly you are. ;-) Lots of love, Jenny

  3. Wow. That was beautiful–so visual, with the trumpet vines tangling with the wisteria and honeysuckle. And wow–these first lines: “In the place where trumpet vines bloomed in the desert, an arbor hung over some children while words danced poetry above their heads.

    Seated there in the shade on hard wooden benches, their small fingers curled tight around fat pencils, thin pencils, crayons too, they crafted rhymes, for even children, especially children, are poets. Unrelenting Arizona sun thwarted by a leafy cover, they were content with this happy art of words. They batted the occasional fly and bee, and birds joined too — a little nest up in the corner of the beams — and all around was a rosy glow.”

    You are gifted, girl.

  4. Nancy says:

    Jennifer that is a lovely memory about the arbor and the Little Rimers. Mom’s efforts to get me to do poetry went back to when I was around 8 years old and we still lived in Tucson. She gave her best efforts to cajole and threaten and punish me into giving her some lines of poetry, and I was so angry and resentful of that that it probably affected my attitudes towards poetry for a lifetime.

    The summer of ’78 is when Julia left home after high school (she got on a bus the day after graduation), and is when I realized, after my first year of high school, that I really wanted to leave home, and began the plotting that led to me leaving home 2 years later.

  5. Jen says:

    Nancy, I’m sorry Mom ruined you for poetry! Actually, you are very poetic in other ways so it’s not all a loss.

    You did give me some context in your comment. Mom’s first two daughters were gone — Julia, in a very physical sense, and you, in the way you described — so maybe she turned to Heather and me that summer to try to redeem something, or as one last chance to do it better?

  6. Jen says:

    Sarah, http://smallworldathome.blogspot.com/ — thank you, your comment was such a lift to my day!

  7. This post itself is poetry– so beautifully written.
    Have you considered writing your own book of childhood stories and memories? You are a gifted writer.

    How are you, Jen? I hope and pray all is well. I miss coming here.

  8. Jen says:

    Anna, http://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/ — I miss blog-visiting, too, these fall days of back-to-school are so incredibly busy.

    Thanks for your encouragement, it always means a lot.

    All is well.

    “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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