On that morning Jonesy washed his face in the brook that ran along the dirt road on his way to Madeleine’s house. He leaned over a shallow pool, dipped his cupped hands in the cold water, and splashed it onto his sweaty face. The cool water dripped down his face as gravity pulled it towards the center of the planet. As the dripping water passed over his beard it formed little beadlets that dripped onto the moist gravel along the edge of the brook. Jonesy wasn’t trying to impress any one, he just wanted to wash off the sweat and grime that his face had gathered from a long walk on a dirt road on this 95 degree July day. This would be the first time he would meet Madeleine and he certainly wanted to make a good impression. Jonesy had heard from a mutual friend that Madeleine was looking for someone to watch her place while she went to take care of an ill sister. A little extra cash would be nice. His old Econoline van needed some repairs to get it back on the road.
Madeleine lived about two miles from the house that Jonesy and four of his friends rented. The entire walk, save the first 400 yards, was along a gravel road that eventually took you to the next town to the south. The road had moderate traffic for these parts, and every time a car or pickup truck barreled down the road it would leave a trail of dust that settled and stuck to his sweaty skin. He didn’t mind the sweat, but the idea of appearing dirty when you’re first meeting someone and asking them if you can take care of their house just didn’t seem right.
For the most part the road that Jonesy walked along was bordereded with woods and a narrow brook that was fed by springs that ran off the surrounding hills. The cool shade from the trees provided relief from the heat as Jonesy walked up the long hilly road towards Madeleine’s house. Every once in a while the road would break out into a clearing where and old meadow was being kept mown and the intense heat would return. Sweat stuck to Jonesy’s skin like honey on a hot pancake. The cold brook water on his face cleared his head and cooled his thinking. This was important as Jonesy’s friend had told him Madeleine was, despite her age, very sharp and quick to judge someone’s intelligence.
As Jonesy came to the end of her driveway there was a gate. The gate was tied to a post with an old piece of manila rope that could be just lifted over the post. Jonesy was careful to loop the rope back over the post after entering the driveway before he began the walk down the cart road that led to Madeleine’s house. The cart road was basically two wheel ruts bordering a swath of grass and forbs that formed a centerline mound. The mound ran down the entire length of the driveway. It was clear to Jonesy that this entrance to her house was used just frequently enough to keep vegetation from growing in the ruts but no often so as to leave the driveway completely bare. He was surprised, given her reputation for being meticulous, that the driveway didn’t have a more formal appearance.
The cart road was bordered by young forest for a distance of about 100 yards and then mown fields for about the next 200 yards. When Jonesy walked out of the wooded area on the drive he could see a neat white cottage with a screened in porch on the other end of the meadows. The cottage appeared to be in very good condition. Outside of the cottage there was a 1956 Plymouth parked on the edge of a small lawn. The old Plymouth appeared to be in very good condition for a vehicle that was 14 years old. Jonesy liked what he saw and his step quickened as he approached Madeleine’s house.
When Jonesy reached the Plymouth he heard some sheep bleating over by a set of red sheds. He had expected a few farm animals from the description his friend had relayed to him. He then noticed a few hens scratching for bugs amongst straw flowers and cosmos in a small garden that bordered the white cottage. Jonesy walked up to a screen door on the porch and knocked. There was no answer so he knocked again, this time a little louder. There was still no reply. Jonesy thought that perhaps Madeleine wasn’t in the house so he decided to walk around the back of the neatly mowed lawn. At the back of the house he could see a lady in a straw brimmed hat standing by some wild shrubs across the field to the south.
Jonesy yelled out “Hello” and the woman turned her head. She waved in a friendly manner. Jonesy took this as a friendly gesture and began to walk towards Madeleine. As he got closer Madeleine yelled out.
“You must be the fellow who might be able to watch my place while I’m away!”
“Yep, thought would be me, my name is Jonesy!”
Madeleine extended her hand and said, “Pleased to meet you Jonesy, I’m Madeleine spelled with an “e” before the “I” like they do in France!”
Jonesy was impressed with how energetic Madeleine seemed to be as she pumped his hand up and down. Madeleine was a beautiful woman, maybe 65 years old, her face looked young but had tell tale lines around her eyes and mouth. Her complexion was as rosy as her temperament. Her hair was full and thick and beautifully gray. Madeleine sure seemed like a vivacious woman to Jonesy.
“You’ve got yourself quite a grip young man, are you used to doing a good day’s work?”
Jonesy was a little taken aback by Madeleine’s inquisitiveness.
“Yes ma’am I’ve always had a penchant for hard work. But I like to relax now and then too!”
“Me too! We’ll get along just fine!”
Madeleine pointed at the shrubs.
“I’m gathering some flowers off of these sumacs to make some sumac tea! I’d like to get some of those ruby red ones from that branch way up there!”
Jonesy looked at the flowers attached to the branches about 10 feet off of the ground. Yes, they were a bit redder, but they were also very high. He studied the situation. He knew that he couldn’t climb the sumac because it was so fragile. His weight could easily fracture a branch. He looked around him and noticed a long branch that had broken off of a nearby white ash tree. Jonesy retrieved the branch from the edge of the field. He carried it back to the sumacs and raised it high into the air and hooked an ash branchlet over the sumac branch that held the flowers and pulled on it until the flowers were just about six feet off the ground. Madeleine clipped away at the flowers quickly with her pruning shears. She dropped each flower into a clean metal pail.
“You’re hired”, Madeleine said laughing out loud, “I never expected anyone so resourceful!”
Jonsey laughed out loud. Madeleine’s overwhelming charisma was infectious.
“Have you ever had sumac tea Jonesy?” asked Madeleine as she waved a red blossom in front of his face.
“Nope, never!” said Jonesey.
“It’s kind of like ice tea, only it’s made with these sumac flowers. My husband used to tell me that it tasted like sunshine. I always liked that observation. And it does, it tastes like sunshine!”
Madeleine looked off into the distance after she spoke.
Jonesy knew right away that the thought of her husband was a poignant moment for Madeleine. The look on her face changed for just a moment. It showed a little sadness sprinkled in amongst all that joy.
“I’m sorry Madeleine, I take it your husband is no longer with us?”
“Oh no, he died years ago. Funny, I can’t drink sumac tea without thinking of Henry. All these years and he’s still with me when I drink sumac tea.”
I looked at Madeleine and thought I could see a little mist in her eyes as she thought about Henry. All the while she smiled as if she hadn’t a sad thought in her head.
“You know Jonesy,” Madeleine said changing the subject, “staghorn sumacs are considered weeds by many people here in New England, but I just think they are one of the most useful plants!”
“I’ve heard people refer to them as weeds,” Jonesy responded, “why do people have such a low opinion of such a beautiful shrub.”
“Well, they will grow just about anywhere, and they are hard to kill. I mean if you get a bunch of sumac growing it will take over a whole field. I think that’s why they’re considered weeds, because they take over old pastures. “
Madeleine stopped talking for a moment and pointed at the sumac. She stood there for several seconds her weathered finger pointing at the group of shrubs.
“Now look at that group of sumacs right there. Aren’t they something? I mean have you ever seen anything more beautiful. All the leaves lined up opposite each other, and those red flowers sitting at the ends of the branches like giant bunches or ruby colored grapes pointing at the sky. I always thought staghorn sumac flowers were so beautiful. I mean, look at these, aren’t they just gorgeous!”
The pitch of Madeleine’s voice rose as she rambled on. Jonesy was worried that she might be getting too excited.
“Did you know,” Madeline went on speaking rapidly, “that the Pocumtuck Indians used to use the sumac to gather sap?”
Jonesy shook his head side to side.
“They would take a branch that was only an inch in diameter and cut it too a length of about five inches. Then they would push out the center of the branch, it is known as the pith and it is very soft. After they’d push the pith the branch would be hollow like a tube! They would make a hole in the tree with a drill, probably made of some sort of rock, and stick the hollow branch in the hole. Then they would collect the sap in buckets that they fashioned out of birch bark. Now that’s being resourceful young man, mighty darned resourceful!”
Jonesy thought Madeleine might tip over from all the excitement, or maybe launch herself into outer space like a NASA missile.
“And you know what else?”, Madeleine declared the pitch of her voice still rising to almost a shrill level, “they would take the bark of the sumac and use it for tanning hides. There’s a lot of tannic acid in that bark!”
“Another thing,” Madeleine went on, “do you know why they call this staghorn sumac? See how furry the branches are, like a stag’s horn in velvet, right? That’s why!”
Jonesy looked at the hairy branches. Actually he knew this fact, but he kind of pretended he didn’t.
“So you see Jonesy, staghorn sumac is a wonderful plant. It’s not a weed at all.”
Jonsey was quiet for a moment, expecting Madeleine to say something else. The air stood still.
After a moment Jonsey said, “It sure doesn’t qualify as a weed with all those uses does it Madeleine?”
It was the only thing he could think of saying after Madeleine’s dissertation on sumac.
“No, Jonesy, it does not qualify as a weed. Now let’s go back to the house and make some sumac tea!”
Jonesy walked along behind Madeleine carrying the large metal pail of sumac flowers. He noticed she walked with a slight limp. She wore khaki slacks, a simple blouse with a flower print, and of course, the large straw hat with the extra wide brim. Jonesy thought she looked like a woman who would be found on a calendar picture painted by Norman Rockwell. She even had the rosy complexion and bright blue eyes found in so many Rockwell paintings.
As they got close to the cottage, Jonesy noticed some gallon sized glass jars lined up along the edge of the porch. Each one was about half full of water. Madeline took the pail from Jonesy and filled each jar with sumac flowersuntil it was full. The water covered the sumac flowers.
“I put the water in these jars about an hour ago. The sun heats up the jar with the water in it. Now that the sumac flowers are in each jar I will put some cheese cloth over each one and let it steep for a couple of days until the water is completely pink. Then I’ll pour the water through a strainer and keep the sumac tea in the refrigerator in the house. Come on in. I’ll show you!”
Jonesy followed Madeleine into the white cottage. The place was as neat as a pin and very old fashioned. Flowered curtains covered the windows to keep the sun out. There were beautiful hooked rugs scattered at all the appropriate places on the hardwood floor. The furniture was over stuffed, old, but still in good condition. As Jonesy went into the kitchen following Madeleine he noticed the kitchen set. It was just like one his mother had when he was a boy. It had a plastic veneer top, sort of a swirly pattern, and bright shiny metal legs. The chairs were upholstered in a matching pattern and also had shiny metal legs. In the corner there was an old refrigerator. It looked like it might have been the first electric refrigerator ever invented. It was short and squat and had a huge metal handle that you pulled out to open the door. Madeleine went straight to the refrigerator and opened the large white metal door. She reached in and pulled out a large jar filled with pink liquid and mint leaves. The jar started sweating as soon as it hit the warm air in the kitchen.
“Here it is Jonesy. A batch of sumac tea just waiting for us! Let’s get some glasses and pour ourselves a glass!”
Madeleine took two tall glasses with a gold floral print and set them on the kitchen table. She then went back to the refrigerator and retrieved some ice cubes out of top where frozen foods were kept. The old metal ice cube trays were then ran under the faucet to loosen up the cubes. She carefully filled each glass half full with the ice cubes, poured the pink liquid form the jar over the ice making sure we each got some mint leaves from the jar. She put the glasses on a metal tray.
“Follow me Jonesy!”
Jonesy followed her out the back door to the porch. The view of the field revealed it was partially shaded now as the sun was getting a little lower in the southwest. Madeleine put the glasses on an old metal table that seemed to have a fresh coat of blue paint. She sat in a wicker chair and Jonesy sat down in another wicker chair next to Madeline.
Madeleine picked up glass and handed it to Jonesy. She picked up the other glass and looked out onto the field. Madeleine was quiet for a moment. Jonesy waited for her to drink. Madeline put the glass to her lips and took a sip of the sweet meadow nectar. Jonesy did the same. Madeleine took a second sip of the cool drink and so did Jonsey.
“Sure does taste like sunshine,” said Madeleine. And she looked out onto the lengthening shadows on the green meadow where the sumacs grew. Madeleine was still smiling but her blue eyes were glossy with tears as she blinked several times so her view of the field would not be obscured.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in August of 2010.