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Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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Chapter
Two

 

In Norse mythology, the sun god Balder
had become invulnerable because of the powerful spells of his mother, the
goddess Freya. But Balder's vengeful enemy, Loki, discovered that Freya had
neglected to protect her son from the mistletoe. He crafted a dart from the
wood and gave it to the blind god, Heder, to use in a game. Heder threw the
dart, missed the mark, and Balder was killed, an invincible hero slain by an
insignificant twig thrown by a blind man.

China Bayles
"Mistletoe Magic"

 

Goldthwaite, a small town in Mills
County in West Central Texas, is "the mistletoe capital of the world"
because more than a million packages of mistletoe are sent out each Christmas
season to cities all over North America.

V. M. Bryant, Jr.

"Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe at
Christmas,"

1991

Brian leaned over and turned up the
heater of McQuaid's old blue pickup. "Are we there yet, Mom?"

"In a minute," I said, and turned a
sharp corner from the blacktop highway onto a rocky road. I pointed to a sign
that read Mistletoe Creek Flower Farm. "See that? It's not far now."

When McQuaid and I
were married, Brian decided, without any prompting from his dad or me, to call
me Mom—and I'm still new enough at this business of mothering to feel touched
and a little surprised when he says the word. (Surprised, as in "Is he
talking to me?") Brian's real mother, Sally, lives in New Orleans and
occasionally sends inappropriate gifts, but that's the extent of her mothering.
I'm mostly it for Brian, and he's definitely it for me. At forty-five, with the
big hand of my biological clock approaching the witching hour, a child of my
own is out of the question.

"Mistletoe Creek
Flower Farm," Brian read out loud, peering out the window at the cheerful
red-and-green painted sign, surrounded by yuccas and prickly pear cactus. He
wiped the steamy window with his sleeve and peered at the sign through the
light drizzle—a cold drizzle, since the temperature wasn't much above freezing.
"What do they do in the winter when the flowers don't grow?"

"They make
wreaths and things out of flowers they gathered in the summer," I
replied. "And they take care of their greenhouses and fields. There's
always a lot of work, even in the off-season." There are only a half-dozen
houses along Comanche Road, which traces a twenty-mile loop off the main
highway south of Pecan Springs, and there's so little traffic that the county
doesn't bother to maintain it. We hadn't seen another vehicle since we pulled
off Route
12.

The Texas Hill Country is a beautiful
place in three sea
sons
of the year—spring, summer, and fall. By early winter, though, the colors and
textures of the landscape have subtly altered, and the Edwards Plateau, rising
westward from I-35 and the lip of the Balcones Escarpment, can seem bleak and
unwelcoming, especially on a rainy afternoon. The cedars keep their rich
bronze-green color all year and the live oaks clutch their foliage possessively
until March, but the early-winter pecans and hackberries and mesquite are only
skeletal reminders of their luxuriant August selves, and the last ragged leaves
on the post and shinnery oaks have already turned the color of mud. The witch
grass and Indian grasses are brown and sere and even the all-weather prickly
pear seems shriveled and naked among the chunks of limestone that litter the
hills and ridges. Look close, and you might see a white-tailed deer among the
willows along a creek; look closer and you can glimpse the wild turkeys
stalking like elusive brown phantoms through the brush. But since this is
hunting season, you'shoot first and ask questions later, even if your name isn't Bambi and you're
wearing Day-Glo orange. A significant proportion of the males in this area
must be color-blind, judging from the number of accidental shootings reported
during hunting season.

About two miles from
the corner, on the left, we passed a rusty mailbox on which the name Swenson
had once been painted. Nearby, along the old barbed wire fence that edged the
road, stood a row of hackberry trees heavy with berry-laden mistletoe clumps.
The plant grows from seeds that stick to the feet or beaks of birds. Under
natural conditions, mistletoe germinates almost anywhere, but the parasite is
successful only if the germinating seed can penetrate thin, tender bark. Its
roots, or haustoria, eventually insinuate themselves into the tissue of the
tree and suck out its nutrients. Mistletoe loves hackberry because the bark is
rough and loose, and the seeds find a good purchase until they have grown
securely into the tree. If Brian and I hadn't been pushed for time, I would
have hopped out and harvested a couple of buckets of the stuff. As it was, I
made a mental note. If Swenson didn't bring the promised order to the shop,
Laurel and I would come out here to gather it. The land behind the fence might
be his, but the right-of-way is public property, and these hackberry trees were
fan-game.

The Fletcher sisters'
flower farm is located on a small patch of arable land along both sides of
Mistletoe Creek, which eventually flows into the Pecan River west of New
Braunfels. The soil in this bottomland is relatively deep, a silty loam that
has to be amended with lots of organic matter before most flowering
plants—other than our Texas natives—can tolerate its alkalinity. Decades ago,
some optimistic farmer had aimed his mule and walking plow up and across the
hillside, probably hoping to expand his precious few acres of arable land to
plant cotton, the chief cash crop in those days. But cotton is long gone from
Adams County, and the soil that was plowed along those rocky terraces quickly
washed downhill. In the little valley along the creek, the Fletcher sisters are
left with just space for their wood-frame house, a red barn, a couple of greenhouses
and a long row of cold frames, and two narrow five-acre fields.

That's room enough,
though, to produce a glorious three-season harvest of cut flowers—snapdragon,
larkspur, delphiniums, phlox, sweet William, dianthus, painted daisies,
sunflowers—which the sisters sell to the florist trade in Austin and San
Antonio. Terry, Donna, Aunt Velda, and the two or three local teens who come to
pick during the busiest month of the growing season have been known to pack and
ship a thousand mixed bouquets in a week, hanging what doesn't sell in the
barn to dry for the wreaths the sisters make during the autumn and winter. It's
hot, hard, demanding work, but when the flowers are blooming, the customers are
waiting, and you have bills to pay, the work is welcome. The Fletcher sisters
have been doing it for six or seven years, since they bought the land from Carl
Swenson, and they seem to be making a success out of a high-risk, long-odds
venture. Personally, I admire their courage and stubborness. You have to be
gutsy to grow flowers for a living in Central Texas, where summer sizzles for
six months and winter temperatures dive below zero just long enough to wipe out
your best cash crop while scarcely inconveniencing the weeds.

We crossed the wooden bridge over
Mistletoe Creek, and I pulled the truck to a stop in front of the house. As
Brian and I climbed out, we were greeted by Max, who came bouncing down the
path on a bandaged right front leg. The black-and-white Border collie was
followed by a sturdy-looking woman in jeans, sweatshirt, and green down vest, a
muffler around her neck and a yellow baseball cap pulled over her taffy-colored
hair. Donna, the younger and more likable of the two sisters, is pushing
thirty-five. She manages the sales and deals with the public while Terry
handles production, but there's enough work on both sides so that they occasionally
have to swap off. And after Aunt Velda came back from her tour around the
galaxy and required more supervision, Donna has taken care of her, as well.
She has her hands full.

"Hey, Max,"
I said, as Brian got down on his knees to pet the dog. "I heard you'd been
eaten by a possum trap. What are you doing out and about?"

"Border collies
don't know the meaning of the word bed-rest," Donna said. Her nose was red
with the cold, and she swiped it on her sleeve. "Sorry you had to drive
out all this way just to pick up those wreaths." She nodded ruefully at
the brown van parked beside the barn, its innards spread over the ground and
covered by a tarp. "Looks like we won't be driving Lizzie until Terry gets
her repaired. We can use Aunt Velda's old Ford truck around the place, but we
can't drive it on the highway. It doesn't have a current license plate."

I understood. Around here, people with big ranches
hang onto their junky old pickups and use them to check on the cows, monitor
fences, and haul hay and firewood. "No problem," I said. "Brian
is spending the weekend with his grandparents in Seguin, and this stop was on
our way."

Brian turned to me.
"Is it okay if me 'n' Max go down to the creek and look for frogs?"
He looked up at the sky, anticipating my objection. "It's stopped
raining—almost."

"The creek's
only a trickle along here," Donna said. "It's not deep enough for him
to get into any trouble."

"Okay—but your
grandmother won't be very happy if you show up at her house with wet
shoes," I told Brian. "Stay out of the water." I watched as boy
and dog trotted off toward the creek, thinking that it's a funny thing about
boys. If you put a rake in their hands and shove them outdoors on a cold,
drizzly day, they'll howl as if you're engaging in child abuse. But put them
within fifty yards of a creek and they'll want to be in the water, no matter
how cold it is.

"The wreaths are in the barn, boxed and ready
to go," Donna said as we started up the path. "I'm sorry Terry isn't
here. She borrowed a friend's car and went to San Antonio for parts for Lizzie.
But there's coffee and pecan pie— pecans from our very own trees. We had a
great crop this year." She gave me a sidelong glance. "I hope you've
got time for a slice before we load your truck."

"Pecan pie?" I said warmly. "You
bet! I don't have to get Brian to his grandparents' until six."

The Fletchers' house is a small, tin-roofed Texas
cottage, its board-and-batten wood siding painted gray, the window frames and
trim a cheerful red. In the summer the walls are covered with moonflowers and
morning glories and cardinal climber, but the first frost had killed the vines
and nothing was left but a sinister brown tangle. We followed the gravel path
around the corner of the house, sending three or four Rhode Island Reds
scrambling out from under a waist-high rosemary bush. Lavender and sage grew
along the wall, and the path was bordered by bright green curly parsley, which
survives all but our hardest freezes. From the ragged look of the foliage,
though, I guessed that it might not survive the chickens. I wondered if they
were laying eggs with chlorophyll-colored yolks.

Donna opened the door and we went into the
kitchen. A gas stove, sink, and refrigerator were arranged along one wall, and
the room was heated by a cast-iron woodstove, which radiated a welcoming
warmth. A gray tabby was curled on a blue braided rug beside the woodbox, which
was piled high with split cedar. A pot of soup simmered on the back of the
woodstove—pea soup with ham, judging from the rich, savory fragrance. Somebody
had put out a few holiday decorations: a dried-flower swag over one doorway; a
ribbon-tied bunch of mistletoe over another; a bowl of oranges, apples, and
pine cones in the middle of the table, garnished with sprigs of fresh green
rosemary.

"It's
cold
out
there," Donna said, closing the door against the chill wind and unwinding
her muffler. "Bet it'll drop into the twenties tonight."

Of course, cold is relative. To a Yankee, today
might seem like Indian summer. But our average December temperature is 50
degrees and we seldom have more than a couple of dozen days below freezing. In
this part of Texas, that's cold enough—especially for those who have to keep
their greenhouses warm.

I shrugged out of my denim jacket and Donna hung
it on a peg beside her down vest and yellow cap. "Cream or sugar?"
she asked.

"Both,
please." I glanced around the room while Donna poured coffee and cut two
generous slices of pie. The windows were curtained in red-checked gingham,
there was a red-painted rocking chair beside the woodstove, and several of
Donna's watercolors—she's a talented artist, among other things—hung on one
wall.

I sat down at the
table and Donna brought the coffee and pie. "Hey, this is super," I
said, when I had tasted it.

The supreme test of a
Texas cook is her pecan pie, and we all have a favorite recipe that we swear
by. But the real secret is the nuts themselves, the fruit of the state tree of
Texas. Fossilized remains of pecan trees have been found in lower Cretaceous
formations to the north of Adams County, so it's safe to say that the trees and
their nuts have been around for a lot longer than people. Indians gathered and
ground them into a seasoning flour for their gruel and bread, or fermented them
as a ceremonial intoxicant called
powcohicoria.
With an eye to future
celebrations, they planted pecan groves around their campsites along creeks and
rivers and near springs. By the late 1800's, pecans were worth five times as
much as cotton, and after modern breeding techniques began to improve the size
and quality of the nuts, they became a cash crop worth cultivating.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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