Hollyhocks camouflaging outhouses is an old tradition that has evolved into a cliché in our culture, so much so that the botanical name (alcea rosea) is often advertised by seed companies and nurseries as “Outhouse Hollyhock.” This is the case with the Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/outhouse-hollyhock-organic-flower). This online retailer currently is SOLD OUT of its organic, self-seeding biennial that grows 6 to 9 feet tall, and shows in blossoms of white, pink, magenta, and burgundy. One of my favorite varieties blooms in flowers of purple, as well. The Seed Savers Exchange entices the consumer with a bit of charming history: “(Alcea rosea) This classic variety has graced outbuildings on Iowa farmsteads for over a century. Years ago, refined ladies just looked for the hollyhocks and didn’t have to ask where the outhouse was….”
Ohio farm wives, like my grandmother, as well as their counterparts far and wide, also planted hollyhocks and sunflowers, and other tall flowers around their “paths,” as the outhouse and its territory was called by my farmer ancestors. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood the multifaceted purpose of my grandmother’s magnificent back garden, that of blocking the view and smell of the outside toilet, as well as providing beauty to the space. Until then, I thought of it merely as a glorious plot of colors and textures and sweet scents replete with the “screening” flowers, but also with four o’clocks, foxgloves, zinnias, chrysanthemums, and more, a patch noisy with the buzzing of hardworking bees, and quivering in its reciprocal relationship with butterflies and hummingbirds, an idyllic respite that was an endless feast for the eye.
Many are the stories in my family linked to the outhouse, and one of them is a particular favorite of mine because it is about my mother. Roma was my mother’s name, and among the offspring of my grandparents (“Mommaw” and “Poppaw” to me and their other grandchildren) who survived birth, she was the second-born, and the eldest girl. Her place in the hierarchy of her family meant that she went toe-to-toe with her parents in terms of daily duties to her seven siblings, the farmhouse, and the farm in all its myriad aspects. The following excerpt of GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS (http://goo.gl/imUwKO), my novel that is a blend of fact and fiction and populated by my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and the people of their circles, as well as one main fictional character, highlights one of their humorous “outhouse” stories. The book is set in Southern Ohio, USA during the years of the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression, world events that set the timber of their lives.
Excerpt of GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS
“One of the most enchanting features of the farm was its peach and apple orchard. Roma, who at the time was a teenager, completely disregarding the fact that green apples gave her the “runs,” and convincing herself that she would get away with it that time, I suppose, in a fit of gluttony, set about one hot summer morning to stuff her belly full of the sweet green teasers. Predictably, later in the day, she found herself in dire need of visiting the “path” as this family called their outhouse, whereupon she sat, for long intervals of time, for several visits in a row. This was back in the time before fluffy white “Charmin” or any other machine-perforated, roll-perfectly-into-your-hand toilet paper; these were the days of pages from magazines, newspapers; the Sears & Roebuck catalog was an especial favorite. And when paper products ran out, corncobs would do. This particular day, Sears & Roebuck were on duty, and Roma, having gone through a good portion of the catalog, pulled up her underwear, and confident her ordeal was finally behind her, pun intended, proceeded to walk to the back door of the house, the door opening onto the kitchen. She lighted into her piled-up kitchen chores, working away uninterrupted for an hour or more, enjoying that peculiar euphoria that comes to one with the release of all of the toxins in ones body, when she realized that the house was unusually quiet, a phenomenon never occurring in that filled-to-human-capacity household. Taking a mere glancing note of it, she continued to sweep away, when out of the distance she thought she heard what sounded like a snicker. She hesitated for a moment, listened, but when all was quiet again, she fell back into the rhythm of her swishing broom. But suddenly, there it was again – a snicker, then two, then three. She realized she had company in the room. She turned to look, and there they all were, all nine members of her family, snickering and pointing at her backside. Horrified, she realized what was the matter, and twisting her head to get a gander at her backside, like a dog chasing its own tail, Roma took off spinning around and around in the middle of the kitchen, howling like a dog, and flapping her hand at the offending article protruding from her underwear. In her haste to vacate the outhouse, the tail of her dress had caught in the waistband of her bloomers, and with it, the Sears & Roebuck page also had fastened itself there, the page waving like a flag flapping in the breeze, and ironically, hailing its colorful advertisement of a supply of women’s under panties.”
Upsidedown hollyhock flowers with unopened buds and attached long stems punched through their bases made hollyhock dolls for my little brother, our young cousins, and me. And sunflowers became faces of imaginary friends. We played with them for hours in Mommaw’s Outhouse Garden when we were kids. If I close my eyes and recall that time, I see the fluttering of those butterfly wings, tuned, it seems to me, to the beat of my heart. And in that fabled distance, nearly imperceptible to my ear, I hear the whistle of a train—the lonely call to faraway places my mother disliked, but I adore.
Author and artist Linda Lee Greene is on social media at the following:
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