Most of the homes in Grayson County had red, pink or white roses climbing over the yard or garden fence, blooming with a profusion of small flowers in the spring and early summer. Ours grew over the embankment at the road in front of our house. The roses and an old hymn often sung at Central Methodist Church gave me my first impression of Heaven. The hymn began like this:
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound
And time shall be no more,
When the morning breaks eternal bright and fair,
When the saved of earth shall gather
Over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.
The last clause was repeated in the chorus. Before I could read, I misinterpreted it, thinking it said, “When the roses fall up yonder.” I pictured Heaven as a place where banks of roses cascaded onto sunlit paths through redolent flower-filled meadows. Heaven, then, was like eternal spring.
Spring stirs the soul and seeks expression. However, Spring and Heaven can be felt but not adequately put into words by ordinary writers such as I.
As I grew up, I noticed that spring began to happen long before the harshness of winter subsided. On our daily walks home from school we looked for the signs of its coming. In early March, as the rays of the sun grew brighter they touched the tops of the maple trees where we could see, framed against a blue cloudless sky, the scarlet buds swelling on the tips of the twigs even though a sharp wind might sting our faces as we looked upward to see them.
Sometimes it seemed that the drifts of dirty snow remaining on the shaded sides of the hills would never go away. When spring is in the air one could hardly imagine getting excited about snow, and yet the wonder of the first snow of winter, falling softly on the dry leaves, just might rival the exuberance of a spring day.
Spring in southwest Virginia is often fickle. It teases by giving and then abruptly taking away. One Easter we awoke to find the jonquils in the yard almost obscured by fresh snow. Not to be outdone, our parents hid our Easter eggs in the snow among the drooping yellow flowers and we put on our coats and overshoes to go outside and find them.
About the time the noisy frogs began their evening chorus from the brook behind the house, Dad would start the spring plowing. He always approached the task as if this were earth’s first spring and he the first farmer. As his clean furrows cut the contours of the field he would be followed by an entourage of robins looking for the earthworms that would appear in the musky fragrance of the newly turned earth.
Eventually, spring would stop the here-today-gone-tomorrow game. My sister, Garnetta, and I watched for the first Violets and Forget-me-nots along the creek. We began visiting the places where orange and pink wild azaleas grew, looking for their sudden burst of color. On Mother’s Day we brought in large bouquets which Mother would put in crocks of water. Dogwoods were usually just beginning to bloom, but we never took them. That was the state flower of Virginia, and we thought it disrespectful to cut its branches. Sometimes in the afternoon Mother would walk with us along the path beside the mill dam in search of rare yellow Violets and Trout Lilies.
But the most beautiful sight filed away in my memory is that of the orchard in bloom. My favorite spring experience was to go after school and sit on the top rail of the fence so that I could take in the beauty of the apple trees at close range. The loveliness was so intense that it was overwhelming. The warmth of the sun on the face, the sight of pink and white blossoms covering the hill like a cloud, the gentle fragrance that was neither timid nor presumptuous, and the sound of thousands of bees at work was a combination that lifted the soul out of the commonplace and into a heavenly realm. Surely this was God’s artistry, and I was allowed to watch the Master Artist at work.
What Amy Lowell’s lilacs* did to the New England housewife—”You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver and her husband an image of pure gold”—an apple orchard in bloom does better. I like to keep an apple tree or two now and any production of fruit is quickly taken by squirrels and birds. I enjoy the beauty and the fragrance when they bloom, and I am reminded each year of the orchard I once knew.
Another favorite of mine was a clump of black locust that bloomed in late spring beside the pasture fence. We passed the shrubs with the draping clusters of sweet-smelling white blooms as we walked to and from school. Dad deplored such growth. He always tried to keep his fence rows clean of “filth.” To him, any unproductive plant or shrub that took up space was “filth” and should be eliminated. I usually didn’t agree with his reasoning, and in this situation the plant and I always won. When he cut the locusts back each year, they responded by sprouting again more profusely than ever. The next year they would tantalize us yet again with their beauty and fragrance.
Spring is a time for poets. My first teacher, Miss Owen, who was gifted with words herself, taught us poems for the seasons. One spring verse I especially liked in first grade was:
In the heart of a seed, buried deep, so deep
A dear little plant lay fast asleep.
“Wake,” said the sunshine, “and creep to the light!”
“Wake,” said the voice of the raindrops bright.
And the little plant heard, and rose to see
What the wonderful outside world might be.
We copied poems from the blackboard and illustrated them with our drawings for a literary scrapbook we compiled.
In High School I began to identify with poets such as William Wordsworth in his well-known tribute to daffodils on a spring day:
I wandered lowly as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…
I gazed and gazed but little thought
What wealth to me the show had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon my inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.**
Spring is music and poetry. It stirs the muses and awakens the creative soul. It is God’s message of love and hope and beauty. Because it is all of this, it seems only natural that the human soul should respond by breaking forth into song and rhyme.
But alas, a poet I was not, no matter how hard I tried. Every spring I attempted, but my hackneyed rhyme, flat and uninspired, always fell in a disheveled heap like cast off winter clothes. And so the beauty of the maple trees in bloom, the sight of the apple orchard at close range, and the tiny purple violet peeking out from under the vestiges of winter would remain only in my mind.
Eventually I gave up the idea of being a poet. And gradually other hymns about Heaven, along with my readings in the Bible, expanded my impression of Heaven to include the possibility of the accepted view of golden streets and jasper walls. And I learned the correct words for “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” But I lost something in the process. Heaven, like spring in the face of a tiny violet or in the fragrance of an apple blossom, cannot really be reduced to words. Poets and prophets can attempt, using the highest expressions of magnificence at their command. And so can I. But let those who must do so picture Heaven with visions of gold and jewels. As for me, I prefer to return to where I started: Heaven must be an eternal, beautiful, perfect spring day, with vast green meadows filled with blooming flowers, budding trees and gentle breezes.
*Amy Lowell (1874-1925), “Lilacs”, quoted from An Anthology of American Poetry, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1941.
**From “Daffodils”, by William Wordsworth (1710 -1850), quoted from memory.