I used to tell writing classes that if they wanted some clue about the identities of their subjects--for feature writing--they'd do well to quietly notice what it is their subjects use to decorate their places. You know, if you want to know your grandpa, look at his workbench.
What's around me now, early this morning, is newly designed, although indifferently planned. On the fireplace on the west wall is a plaque given to me by students in my first year of teaching--it says I was a good teacher (actually, it says even sweeter things, but what did they know?). It sits on a stone pedestal set into the stones. Beside it, on another pedestal, is a favorite picture, a bobble-head of a surfing Obama (a gift from my son, who honeymooned in Hawaii), a George Bush for President pin, and a little glow-in-dark plaque that proclaims "The Lord is my Shepherd," that's been with me as long as I can remember.
There's a brick from a pile on the site where Willa Cather lived as a girl, a desolate spot on the red Nebraska plains, along with a photo of the same spot, as well as an elegant hand-carved heron from an old man whose story I wrote more than 30 years ago. He's gone, but it was a fine gift.
And finally, a poster from a reading forever ago, hand-painted by a colleague an old friend--"Oostburg," it says, the town where I was born and raised. Standing in front of it is a hand-cut puzzle of my last name in the shape of a sheep, a gift from the father of one of my students.
There's a buffalo skull, another gift, on the south wall. It was given to me by a whole family after I announced in a magazine that I'd love a buffalo skull. It's adorned by a bridle woven from baling twine (another gift), and an antler a mule deer shed, something I picked up along the Missouri River. A muskrat pelt too--and a map of historic Sioux County, Iowa.
On the opposite wall is my diploma, a leather drum I bought from a :Lakota man who was selling curios at Wounded Knee, two pictures of my kids as kids, a newspaper I picked up in Washington DC during the march to end the war after the Kent State Massacre in May of 1970.
There's more, but I'm boring you. All of it makes me feel at home. I don't know how to make sense of that.
I bring it up because two weeks ago I put in flowers in a concrete bed on the front porch of the farm house where we live. All that cold cement just looked awful without adornment, so I picked up a ton of scraggly things--half alive--at at 70% discount, and plopped them in dry dirt.
Just a night later, when the former owners dropped by for something, they told us how wonderful it was to see flowers in those front porch flower beds. They weren't lying or just being nice. They meant it.
I wasn't thinking of them when I put in the flowers, I must admit. And the flowers themselves don't make the place theirs--they know that too. This fireplace room has me in it now, not them. But for many, many years this house was their home; and, good Lord, if they had a choice, they'd much prefer those cold gray front porch flower beds to be brimming with flowers in bright summer colors because I'm sure they always made sure it was.
And that's why they liked the flowers.