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SHAMROCKS AND CLOVER

March 13, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the  Alzheimer’s Association, 901 South Pine Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 542-9998.

The story of the life of Saint Patrick is a mixture of fact and fiction. Captured by pirates and taken into slavery in Ireland, Patrick learned the Celtic people’s language and culture. Years later, when he returned to Ireland as a Christian bishop and missionary, Patrick is said to have converted the entire country in less than thirty years. He convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become the people of God by accepting Christianity.

Historically, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The Irish people’s willingness to accept Christianity was due mainly to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and Celtic beliefs. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility cults of the Celts.

The holiday celebrating all things Irish is right around the corner. St. Patrick’s Day conjures images of shamrocks, leprechauns, Irish whiskey, green beer, and other symbols associated with Ireland’s patron saint.  People of every background have adopted March 17 as an international holiday. Key signs are part of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. In addition to Kelly green clothing and Irish flags, shamrocks are commonly seen decorating homes and people.

The word shamrock comes from the Gaelic seamrog, which is the diminutive form of the Irish word for clover and translates roughly as young clover.

Our garden features a lovely green grassy area. Recently, we applied an all-purpose, slow-release fertilizer to the lawn. When I purchased the bag, the salesperson asked if I wanted a weed killer in the mix. I declined. My motto for our yard is “If it is green and growing, leave it alone.” Of course, it all needs to be cut regularly. Dandelions have bright yellow blooms. Clover is a grass-like plant, and bees use the white flowers as a prime source of pollen for honey production.

Several healthy patches of clover are scattered quilt-like across our lawn. Last week, two of our granddaughters searched diligently for the prized four-leaf clover. Their quest ended without finding even one.

Three- and four-leaf clovers are a part of Irish imagery. They are commonly thought to have arrived in Ireland with Saint Patrick. Before Christianity and the ministry of Patrick, the Druids believed that they could thwart evil spirits and other dangers by carrying a shamrock. A three-leaf shamrock would enable them to see the evil spirits in time to escape. A four-leaf clover was said to ward off bad luck and offer magical protection. The Druids helped establish the clover as a Celtic charm, and other folklore indicates clovers helped people see fairies and chase the little sprites.

Around 400 in the Common Era, in many areas of the world, including Ireland, pagan beliefs were being replaced in favor of Christianity. The Irish were slowly converted to a new religion. This included a new way of looking at some once-popular Pagan symbolism. According to legend, Eve is said to have carried a four-leaf clover out of the Garden of Eden. Some believe that those who grasp four-leaf clovers hold a bit of paradise in their hands. Christians also thought clovers were a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Irish stories suggest that Saint Patrick used a shamrock to teach the principles of the Trinity. A three-leaf clover represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Should a four-leaf clover be found, it is considered the Trinity plus God’s grace. The four-leaf clover looks like a cross, giving four-leaf clovers special meaning to some people.

Since the 18th century, the shamrock has been a symbol of Ireland. It was used as an emblem by rival militias and later was incorporated into the Royal Coat of Arms in the United Kingdom, alongside the rose of England and thistle of Scotland.

Our grandsons Michael has a knack for finding four-leaf clovers. Recently, when he stooped to pick one, I was reminded of the legend of Saint Patrick.

According to legend, Patrick not only used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But the clover’s green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. The shamrock has since become a symbol associated with Saint Patrick’s Day.

At least five plant species have been identified as shamrocks – white clover, lesser clover, red clover, black medic, and common wood sorrel or oxalis. These plants have each represented the shamrock in Celtic artwork through the centuries. It became a popular decorative motif in Victorian times.    

Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock of Ireland. Many lawns in the Upstate of South Carolina, including my backyard, feature a patch or two of white clover.  Oxalis also displays dainty purple flowers in my garden, and black medic is beginning to show new growth.

I have never have known anyone who enjoyed throwing a party quite like my mother did. Mama loved decorating her home for every holiday – Christmas, and Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. Her eight children and our spouses, her forty-five grandchildren and their friends, all looked forward to the succession of holidays at Mama’s house. Saint Patrick’s Day attracted leprechauns, young and old, and elves of every size to Mama’s house. In March, her home was decorated with shamrocks.

My mother was the champion when it came to finding four-leaf clovers. Walking across a yard while pregnant, holding one child by the hand, and carrying a baby on her hip, Mama could still spot the rare four-leaf clover. I have seen her gather a half-dozen four-leaf specimens while others who were searching in the same clover patch came up empty.

One afternoon, while traveling to North Carolina for her older sister’s birthday, Mama searched a clover patch at a rest area. It was the day she established her record. In less than an hour, she found seventy-five four-leaf clovers. She gave them to her sister as a gift for her seventy-fifth birthday. Mama just knew how to find the lucky charms.

The mystique of the four-leaf clover continues today. Finding a four-leaf clover is still a rare occurrence. It has been estimated that there are approximately 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every single four-leaf clover.

Apart from the significance of the leaves of a shamrock identified by Saint Patrick, others say the leaves of a four-leaf clover represent faith, hope, love, and luck.

In 1948, Art Mooney recorded a song about the four-leaf clover. I remember hearing my mother sing the song while she looked for four-leaf clovers. The words of the song ascribe an alternate meaning to the four leaves of the rare clover.


 I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.
One leaf is sunshine, the second is rain,
Third is the roses that grow in the lane.
No need explaining, the one remaining
Is somebody I adore.
I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.

Mama died in April 2001, three days after Easter. Though she had lived with congestive heart failure for several years, she died unexpectedly from a stroke. At the time of her death, her home was still decorated with an Easter motif. After her funeral, I discovered two wilted shamrocks in pots in her garage, leftovers from Saint Patrick’s Day. They were the black medic variety. These shamrocks feature dark leaves in the familiar three-leaf configuration and delicate white flowers.

With Dad’s permission, I transplanted the spent shamrocks in my garden. They lived, and each spring, they reappear, larger than the year before, as a memorial to Saint Patrick and to my mother.

The summer after my mother died, I spent an hour or so one afternoon searching a clover patch for four-leaf treasures. Alas, my search was to no avail. The four-leaf clover queen had gone to greener fields of shamrocks. Except for my sisters and our grandson, we have few family members who can spot the tiny four-leaf treasures. Mama’s talent for discovering the lucky leaves was as rare as the small charms.

Several months after Mama died, I was looking through old photographs she had collected. Stashed among the many family pictures was a small waxed paper packet. When I held it up to the light, I could see through the translucent package. Pressed and preserved by Mama were five four-leaf clovers.

Finding a four-leaf clover is simply a matter of knowing where to look.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

ON DRINKING VINEGAR

March 7, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Spartanburg Science Center and Science Museum 200 East Saint John Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina  29306, (864) 583-2777, https://www.spartanburgsciencecenter.org.

From the time I was twelve years old until I graduated from high school, I worked at the family lumberyard every summer.  Dad and I would go to work at 6:00 in the morning and stay until 6:00 at night.  Those twelve-hour days were interrupted by a one-half hour at noon for a meal that we never called lunch.  It was always dinner, and we always went home to Mama’s cooking.

One sweltering hot day, Dad and I came home to a meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, English peas, and turnip greens.  We washed our hands at the kitchen sink and sat down to our plates which were already served.  My dad offered his usual table grace.

“Lord, make us thankful for these and all our many blessings. Amen”

Before he got to Amen, I was reaching for a large jar of amber liquid, pouring it over a tall glass of ice.  Hardly anything was better in the summertime than Mama’s sweet tea.  I put the glass to my lips and took a big swig.  The liquid was not iced tea, and it was certainly not sweet.  It was apple cider vinegar, intended for the turnip greens.  Mama came to the rescue with a large pitcher of freshly brewed sweet iced tea.  From that day to this, I have never enjoyed drinking vinegar. In fact, apple cider vinegar seems like a waste of good apples to me.

My grandmother, Mammy, knew what to do with apples. I grew up on apple sauce, apple juice, apple cobbler, and apple butter. Mammy could take the ugliest, knottiest apples and make the best lattice-crust pies ever. For a long time after Mammy’s death, my Aunt Ann made sugar-free apple pies for me using apple juice as the sweetener. I contend that apples were meant to be sweet. That’s why they are associated with love.

According to Irish folklore, an apple peel, pared into one long continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman’s shoulder, will land in the shape of her future husband’s initials. Both my grandfather and Clare’s grandfather could peel an apple in this way. The long strip of apple peel was presented as a gift to a grandchild.  I now find myself doing this for our grandchildren.

When I was a boy, an old apple tree in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse was down a dirt road beyond our home. In the autumn of the year, the ground was littered with rotten apples. Apple fights, spontaneous frays, were great fun. Late one September afternoon, beneath the old apple tree, the battle was joined. All went well until a buddy of mine threw a rotten apple at me. I ducked.

The apple sailed over my head and toward his girlfriend. The rotten apple hit her in the face! He was no longer the apple of her eye! She ditched him.

Beyond romance, apples have also been linked to good health. An old proverb attests to the fruit’s health benefits: an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. Like many fruits, apples contain vitamin C, as well as a host of other antioxidant compounds. They may also assist with heart health, weight loss, and cholesterol control. The chemicals in apples may protect us from the brain damage that results in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Clare and I enjoy driving to the mountains in the fall to buy fresh apples from our favorite roadside stand. The display features more than thirty varieties of the fruit and other apple products – bread, jellies, and beverages. Juice made from sweet apples is filtered and pasteurized. Apple cider is unfiltered, unpasteurized juice. Apple wine is fermented sweet apple juice. Apple brandy is a distilled derivative.

Many old apple cultivars have excellent flavor and are still grown by home gardeners and farmers whose conservation efforts continue in John Chapman’s tradition. An American pioneer, he roamed the Midwest for more than fifty years. He earned his nickname, Johnny Appleseed, by planting apple trees across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The apples planted by Johnny Appleseed were the bitter variety. Henry David Thoreau wrote that the apples were “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” John Chapman provided a source for the most easily produced alcoholic beverage of early American times. Hard cider is fermented sour juice. Apple Jack is concentrated hard cider. President John Adams held that a tankard of cider a day kept the doctor away.

Our good friend, Jean Crossley, is the longtime owner of the New Method Laundry and Dry Cleaning business in Spartanburg,  One day we took clothes by to be laundered and pressed. In the course of the conversation, Clare said, “Whenever I do my own ironing, my shoulder hurts.”

Jean asked, “Do you take cider vinegar?”

Clare said, “No! I tried it, but I stopped.”

Jean explained that she takes cider vinegar every day. Jean is so energetic, even given her strenuous job and her long work hours, that Clare became a convert. She mixes a generous splash of cider vinegar in a tall glass of water and sips on it all day long.

 Unfiltered apple cider vinegar has long been regarded as a home remedy. Check the label. The vinegar must be unfiltered! Two tablespoons of the sour elixir in a glass of water, taken as a daily tonic, are said to relieve or cure many ailments. The long list includes allergies, sinus infections, acne, high cholesterol, flu, chronic fatigue, acid reflux, sore throats, contact dermatitis, arthritis, and gout. Apple cider vinegar breaks down fat and promotes weight loss.  A daily dose is said to reduce high blood pressure and help control diabetes.

Clare’s aunt and uncle were true believers in the powers of apple cider vinegar. Mitch and Helen imbibed the remedy every day. They were traveling on a nostalgic steam locomotive trip. Box lunches were served to all the passengers. Every person aboard the train developed food poisoning except for Mitch and Helen. To this day, family lore holds that the apple cider vinegar protected them.

Members of Clare’s family are so enamored with the medicinal effects of drinking sour cider vinegar that it frequently becomes the topic of conversation at family gatherings. Clare is convinced that we, too, should drink our daily ration of acidic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

The wisdom of Hebrew Scripture says that vinegar sets a person’s teeth on edge. Through bitter experience – and I do mean bitter – I have found that to be true. I have not acquired a taste for sour apple cider. Still, Clare encourages me.  Sometimes, I pour a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar into a glass. I mix mine with vegetable juice and chug it as fast as I can.

“I am drinking it because I love you,” I say.

So, I guess it does have something to do with love and maybe with good health. It certainly has something to do with family lore.

“You know,” Clare will say, “Mitch and Helen drank cider vinegar every day.”

“Yes, I know, and Mitch and Helen are dead.”

For Christians observing the season of Lent, drinking vinegar can have a deeper meaning. All four of the Biblical Gospels record that while dying on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth requested something to drink. The Apostle John wrote, “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Reflecting on this passage, I ask, Was the offering of vinegar an act of mocking or an act of mercy? Was it insult added to unimaginable injury? Or was it compassion prompted by unmitigated suffering?

I have never been quite sure. Some Gospel writers make it seem one way, some the other. Either way, it may be something to ponder and pray about for Lenten observance. If you choose to do that, take a sip of apple cider vinegar before you decide.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

DAFFODILS: FLOWERS OF HOPE

February 27, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what, as you are able, to globalbike, a nonprofit organization supporting women-owned bike rental and repair programs in rural communities with concentrated poverty where women have not traditionally had the opportunity to work outside the home. Founded in Spartanburg and based in Tanzania, globalbike gives women the tools they need to grow their communities through entrepreneurship. Hillcrest Market Place, 1855 East Main Street #14, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, 301-920-0408, http://www.globalbike.org.

Last Sunday, I was pleased to see in the Spartanburg Magazine’s latest issue a fascinating article on daffodils for the Southern garden. These reliable bulbs deserve a place in every garden. They are low maintenance and add an artistic touch to the early spring landscape. Perfect timing! The daffodils in my garden are beginning to bloom, strutting and dancing in the cool breeze.

The daffodil symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings. It became associated with the arrival of spring because it is one of the first perennials to bloom after the winter frost. Though daffodils do grow in shades of white and orange, they are best known for brightening up the garden with their yellow hues.

The Latin name for daffodil is Narcissus. It is believed to be named after the son of the river god. The story of Narcissus comes to us from ancient Greek mythology.  Narcissus was a sixteen-year-old young man who became infatuated with his own reflection.  He spurned the affection of the beautiful maiden, Echo, until she was finally reduced to nothing more than her sad, pleading voice.

Narcissus was celebrated for his beauty, but he was arrogant. The goddess Nemesis noticed this and lured him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection.

Some sources say while he was staring at his reflection, nymphs transformed him into a narcissus flower to get revenge for how he treated them. Others think he drowned trying to capture his reflection, and the flowers growing along the riverbed were named after him. The blooming plant that bears his name is commonly known as the daffodil.

Some even liken the nodding heads of daffodil flowers to Narcissus, bending down and gazing at his reflection.

In England, daffodils are also known as Lenten lilies. They typically bloom between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

A.E. Housman, an English scholar and poet, wrote a poem entitled “The Lent Lily” in tribute to the flower.

And there’s the windflower chilly

With all the winds at play,

And there’s the Lenten lily

That has not long to stay

And dies on Easter day.

A dear lady, Helen Babb, lived in the South Carolina countryside between Greer and Gowansville. Mrs. Babb loved beautiful flowers. In the late summer, old-fashioned rose companions with soft silver foliage and deep red blossoms covered an area near the old barn. They reseeded each year, multiplying in number and in beauty.

In the early spring, Helen Babb’s yard featured bright yellow jonquils, the petite relatives of daffodils. They, too, spread each year, flowing like a graceful yellow ribbon down a gentle slope.

After Mrs. Babb’s death several years ago, her daughter knew that she would have to sell her mother’s home place. She wanted to save some of the heirloom flowers for her own yard in Spartanburg. In the fall, she dug up a box full of the jonquil bulbs, many more than she needed. She shared some with me.

On a rainy, cold November afternoon, I planted the bulbs on an embankment near the waterfall in my garden. Every February, the tiny flowers put on a magnificent display.

This is the season of the garden narcissus, the family of flowering bulbs that includes jonquils and daffodils. These cheerful blooms are harbingers of spring and symbols of hope.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are the promise that spring is drawing near. Other flowering bulbs, like crocus and Dutch iris, along with pansies and Lenten roses, are welcome sights even in the snow. But once the daffodils bloom, there can be no doubt that seasons are changing. It is as if the nodding trumpet-shaped flowers herald the arrival of spring.

Some time ago, when I was younger and more agile, two of our sons and I took a backpacking trip during spring break along the Foothills Trail in the Dark Corner, the northwestern section of South Carolina. Somewhere between the Keowee and the Whitewater Rivers, we crested a hill and were greeted with the stunning sight of hundreds of yellow daffodils. An old homestead had long since disappeared and was now marked only by a crumbling fieldstone foundation and a collapsed chimney. The flowers that graced the mountainside each spring had survived and naturalized, spreading through a meadow and across the forest floor.

The English poet, William Wordsworth, immortalized the daffodil in lines penned in 1804.

I wander’d lonely 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;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gene was a dear friend who grew up on a farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina. His success with the family business enabled him to build a home on the family farm within a stone’s throw of the old home place.  The beautiful house had a wrap-around porch with big rocking chairs. Visitors approached by a long driveway, flanked on the left by with horse pasture and a weathered barn. Up a hill to the right is the foundation of the former home.  In the early spring, this hill is covered with bright yellow daffodils. Originally planted by Gene’s mother around the old farmhouse, the daffodils have naturalized, spreading helter-skelter down the hillside.  Each year the flowers bloom from late February through March. The yellow-splotched hill is a sight to behold.

A few years ago, after several months of increasingly severe health problems, it became clear that Gene was quite ill.  The diagnosis was a rapidly growing, rare form of cancer.  His death came quickly, far sooner than most of us had expected.  While his death was anticipated, it was also sudden, making the grief experience jagged and confused. 

In mid-March, Gene went home from the hospital. On a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, Gene asked if he could see the daffodils.  Surrounded by his loving wife, children, and several grandchildren, Gene was transported by wheelchair down the driveway near the barn.  He sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the sight of the hillside covered in delicate yellow blooms dancing in the breeze. 

Three days later, Gene died.

At the graveside in a country churchyard, the children and grandchildren each placed a daffodil, picked from the hillside, on the polished wooden casket.  Even though yellow daffodils bring to mind bittersweet memories, they will be a perennial symbol of hope for Gene’s family.

In his concluding lines in the poem, “Daffodils,” Wordsworth captures the wonder of these spring flowers for all who find in them a signal of hope.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Jesus taught his followers how to deal with worry and anxiety. His counsel was to pay attention to birds and flowers.  For Gene’s family, as well as for many others, those flowers will always be daffodils.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com