"The Impossible Dream"

I could hardly believe it. Here I was, walking along the sandy cowpath in the lane between the Bluff and field, clutching a fistful of birdsfoot violets. Often when I came home from school, my mother asked me to do a job around the house, take clothes off the clothesline outside, go to the basement to get a pan of potatoes for supper, or put away the sheets and pillowcases she had ironed that afternoon.

But today, Mom had asked me to pick some violets.

And since it was such a sunny, warm May afternoon, more like summer, really, rather than spring, I jumped at the chance

The open spot on the south slope of the big wooded hill behind the barn was so purple with violets I could see them from the school bus when we were still a quarter of a mile away.

In school we had learned that the state flower was the wood violet but that another kind of violet which grew around here was called a birdsfoot violet. Our teacher told us they were called birdsfoot violets because the frilly leaves growing close to the ground looked like a bird’s foot. I liked birds. Many birds lived on our farm. Barn swallows and Baltimore orioles and robins and sparrows and sometimes rose-breasted grosbeaks that came to eat the oats scattered on the ground by the granary.

Up ahead in the warm afternoon sunshine, the cows lounged around the barnyard, some standing, some lying down, flicking their ears and tails to chase away the flies. As I reached the barnyard gate, I stopped and switched the violets from one hand to the other. My hand felt sweaty from holding the violets, and I didn’t want to ruin them before I got back to the house.

‘Mooooo-oooo,’ said one of the Holstein cows standing in the middle of the barnyard. It was Sweetcorn, the cow who had given birth to her calf on the sidehill in Dusty’s pasture one summer and then could not get up afterwards. She had been so sick, she hadn’t wanted to eat anything until Dad thought of cutting stalks of sweet corn for her from the garden.

The cows had been back in the pasture earlier today’as they were every day’but they were in the barnyard now because they knew it was almost time to come in the barn for their supper of ground up corn and oats with molasses mixed in to make it taste extra-good.

‘Moooooooo,’ said Sweetcorn again, stretching her nose toward my hand.

‘Oh, no’no, no’you can’t eat Mom’s violets!’ I said.

Sweetcorn followed me to the wooden fence by the stock tank.

‘Dad will let you in the barn pretty soon,’ I said.

I climbed over the wooden fence, and when I climbed down off the other side, Sweetcorn stood there watching me.

‘Moo,’ she said.

I heard the crunch of tires on the small stones in the driveway and turned away from the fence in time to see Loretta’s car before it disappeared on the other side of the garage. I hurried past the granary, and when I reached the gas barrel, I could see my big sister opening the porch door.

‘Hi, Loretta!’ I yelled.

I waved the fistful of violets at her, and she waved back and then went into the house.

As I started toward the house again, I looked down. A few of the violets had fallen out of my hand when I waved them at Loretta. I stopped to pick them up, carefully tucking them in with the other violets. Mom said she wanted me to get as many violets as I could carry, so I didn’t want to waste any of them. While I was kneeling on the ground, one of the barn cats came to see what I was doing and sniffed at the flowers in my hand.

‘Mom wants these so she can make tea,’ I told the cat.

‘Meow,’ she said as she gazed at me with her green-gold eyes.

When I stood up, the cat trotted in front of me, and as I headed for the porch steps, she laid down in the narrow strip of shade by the light pole where the yard light was mounted. She stretched out her front paws and yawned.

‘Is this enough?’ I asked, holding up the violets as I walked into the kitchen a minute later.

My mother sat by the table, paging through the newspaper.

‘I certainly hope it’s enough,’ she said.

For the past few months, my mother had been having trouble sleeping. She either could not fall asleep, or else she would wake up in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep.

I never had trouble sleeping myself. Almost as soon as I crawled in under the blankets, I was sound asleep, and I didn’t wake up until my alarm clock went off in the morning. A couple of weeks ago my mother had read in a magazine that a tea made from wild violets was supposed to help a person sleep, and ever since she had read the article, she had been waiting for the violets on the Bluff to bloom.

‘What should I do with them?’ I asked.

‘Put them in the sink,’ she said, ‘so I can rinse them off.’

Although Loretta had only arrived home a few minutes ago, she was already coming down from upstairs, dressed in an old pair of pants and an old shirt.

‘What are you going to do?’ I said as I set the violets in the sink.

‘Rake that section lawn of by the lilacs,’ Loretta said. ‘I should’ve done it a long time ago, but it’s been so cold and rainy for the past couple of weekends.’

She went to the sink and peered down at the flowers.

‘Do you really think the violets are going to help?’ Loretta asked.

‘I have no idea,’ my mother replied. ‘But it’s worth a try. What harm could come from violets, after all?’

‘I suppose so. They are only violets,’ Loretta said. She turned to me. ‘Do you want to help rake?’

Raking, as far as I was concerned, was the most tiresome chore in the whole wide world’put the rake down on the grass, pull it toward you; put the rake down on the grass, pull it toward you. Over and over and over again.

I looked at my mother, hoping that for once she would come up with something else she wanted me to do.

‘Go out and help your sister rake,’ Mom said.

A sinking feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.

That’s what I was afraid she would say.

‘No, wait,’ Mom said. ‘Before you go out, I want you to help me. I’ve never washed violets, so I don’t know if they’re going to fall apart. If they do, it might take two hands to put them on the dishtowel.’

Ever since I could remember, I had been watching my mother work in the kitchen with one hand as she held onto the counter with the other to keep her balance.

‘Help Mother with the violets, and then you can come out and help me with the raking,’ Loretta said. ‘I have a surprise for you.’

‘A surprise?’ I said. ‘What kind of surprise?’

‘If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise!’ Loretta said. And with that, she went outside.

‘Do you know what the surprise is?’ I said to Mom.

She shook her head and shrugged. ‘When it comes to your sister, I suppose it could be just about anything.’

I watched as my mother put her hands on the seat of the chair, one on each side of her and pushed herself up until she was standing on her feet. Bent from the waist, she grasped the edge of the table with one hand and reached for the stove with the other.

When my mother had gotten a firm grip on the stove, she shuffled her feet until she was close enough to lean down and pull open the drawer.

‘Here,’ she said, holding out a small saucepan. ‘Would you fill this with water?’ I took the pan to the sink and filled it nearly to the top.

‘Good,’ Mom said. ‘Now would you please set it on the burner.’

I put the pan on the burner. My mother reached to the back of the stove and turned the dial to high.

‘By the time we’re finished washing the violets, the water ought to be hot enough to make my tea,’ Mom said.

She reached for the counter next to the stove and, shuffling her feet as she went, made her way along the cupboard until she came to the sink. She turned on the cold-water faucet, leaned on the sink against her forearms and began to rinse the violets.

As I stood by the sink next to my mother, I thought about her idea to make violet tea. One time Mom had said that when she was a little girl and was going to school at the country school a mile from our farm, they used to make May baskets out of strips of paper woven together. If the violets were blooming by the first day of May, they would put violets in the May baskets, along with whatever other spring flowers they could find growing in the woods.

Putting violets into May baskets seemed like a good thing to do with violets.

But how could little purple flowers help anyone sleep?

My mother rinsed the violets under a thin stream of running water, and as she laid them in the empty sink, I picked them up and put them on a clean dishtowel. The violets did not fall apart when they were rinsed, which I didn’t think they would because they didn’t fall apart when it rained, but still, they were soggy and hardly looked like violets.

‘Hmmmmm,’ Mom said, ‘now I wonder if I am supposed to use just the flowers? Or the flowers and the stems?’

‘What did the article say?’ I asked as I folded the dishtowel over the violets.

My mother frowned. ‘It didn’t say anything about how to make the tea. It just said, among other things, that wild violets are supposed to help you sleep.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, if the flowers are good, the stems must be good, too. Would you please get a bowl out of the cupboard?’

I opened the cupboard door in front of me, reached for a bowl and set it on the counter while my mother pulled the dishtowel back. She picked up the violets, by twos and threes, and laid them in the bowl.

‘Would you please put that over by the stove for me?’ she asked.

I set the bowl on the counter by the stove. The water in the little saucepan was already boiling, and my mother inched along the counter until she came to the stove. She turned off the burner and poured some of the boiling water over the violets.

‘Now what?’ I asked.

‘Now I have to let them steep,’ Mom said.

‘Steep? Like a hill is steep?’

‘No. It’s the same word, spelled the same way, but it means they have to soak in the hot water for a while,’ she explained. ‘I’m going to let them sit there until supper, so you might as well go out and help your sister rake.’

Oh, yes, the raking.

I had forgotten all about the raking.

After one last look at the violets floating in a steaming bowl of water, I went outside, and with my hand on the railing Dad had made out of a piece of old pipe, slowly walked down the steps. Even though it was a sunny day, the railing felt cold under my hand, and I wondered how cold it would feel during the winter.

As soon as I got around the corner of the house, I saw that Loretta was busy raking leaves into a pile by the lilacs. The silver maples at the edge of the lawn and the lilacs in the middle of the back lawn left plenty of leaves to rake up every spring.

From the tops of the silver maples, Baltimore orioles were singing’tweet-tweet’tweet-tweet’tweet-tweet-tweeta-tweet.

I stopped and closed my eyes for a minute to listen. Ever since Dad had pointed out how much birds liked to sing in the springtime, I heard birds singing everywhere.

When I opened my eyes, all at once, I saw something unusual.

‘Hey!’ I said. ‘What’s that?’

Loretta was raking the lawn with a rake that did not look at all like the rakes we had used before. It had a long handle with something that looked like a big wire fan on the bottom’the kind of fan that you would use to fan your face when it’s hot. The other rakes we had used before were made of thick tines like the teeth on Dad’s drag, except that the tines on the rake were curved and the teeth on Dad’s drag were straight.

‘For years we’ve been struggling to rake the lawn with those old garden rakes,’ Loretta said. ‘I decided to buy a couple of rakes that are meant to be used to rake the lawn.’

‘Garden rakes?’ I said. ‘You mean there’s different kinds of rakes?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Those other old rakes are meant to smooth out the dirt when you plant the garden or after you hoe the garden.’

‘They are?’

I had never seen any other kind of rake’and did not know there was any other kind of rake.

‘I bought two,’ Loretta said. ‘The other one is over there.’

I turned around, and sure enough, another rake just like the one Loretta was using leaned against the house.

Curious to find out how the rake worked, I took hold of the handle, set the wire fan in the grass and drew it toward me.

When the rake reached my feet, I couldn’t help wondering what was wrong with it. I had been helping my sister rake the lawn for quite a few years, so I was pretty sure I knew how to rake’except that this rake didn’t seem to be working right.

So I tried it again.

And then again.

‘Am I doing this the way you’re supposed to?’ I asked.

Loretta stopped raking and watched me.

‘I don’t know if there’s a wrong way to rake. Unless you turn the rake upside-down,’ she said.

I pulled the rake toward me one more time.

‘But this is so easy!’ I said.

The new rake glided through the grass and pulled the leaves from last year along with it in one, smooth pass.

The old rakes caught in the grass and required so much effort to pull them that my arms grew tired after only a few minutes.

Loretta smiled. ‘Like I said’I don’t know why we’ve been struggling with those old garden rakes for so long.’

We only had to finish the lawn around the lilacs and some of the front lawn. In no time at all, with both of us working at it, the raking was done. Before he cleaned the barn tomorrow, Dad would bring the manure spreader behind the house to pick up the piles of leaves and old grass that we had raked up, and then he would spread the piles out in the field.

Loretta and I put the new lawn rakes into the machine shed, and then we went back into the house, where my mother stood by the cupboard, using a slotted spoon to fish the violets out of the bowl.

‘They don’t look much like violets anymore,’ I said.

The violets had become a lump of green mush with a few streaks of lavender. I had been wondering if the tea would turn a pretty purple color, but it really didn’t look like much of anything.

My sister picked up the bowl and swirled the liquid. ‘Now what do you have to do with it?’ she asked.

‘I don’t have to do anything more with it’except wait and drink a cup of it before I try to go to sleep,’ Mom replied.

‘What do you think it tastes like?’ I asked, staring into the bowl.

My mother shrugged. ‘As long as it’s not bitter, I don’t really care.’

After we had finished milking in the evening and had fed the calves and had turned the cows outside, I could hardly wait to get back in the house so my mother could tell me what the violet tea tasted like.

‘Are you ready to drink your tea yet?’ I said as I came into the house.

‘No,’ Mom said, ‘I’m not ready to drink my tea yet’not until after I’ve watched the weather.’

‘The weather?’ I said, turning to look at the clock. ‘But that’s a long time from now.’

Although I was usually in bed by ten o’clock, under the circumstances, Mom said I could stay up to watch her drink the violet tea.

When the weather forecast was finally over after the ten o’clock news, my mother picked up her crutches and went out to the kitchen. I stood by her elbow and watched as she poured the violet tea into a cup, and then I set the cup on the table for her.

‘Aren’t you going to warm it up first?’ Loretta asked. She, too, had come out to the kitchen when the weather was finished.

Mom shook her head. ‘I don’t think it will make much difference.’

She picked up the cup of tea.

‘Here goes,’ she said, taking a sip.

‘Well?’ I asked.

‘Hmmmm,’ my mother said, shaking her head. ‘Not only doesn’t it look like much of anything, it doesn’t taste like much of anything.’

‘It doesn’t taste like anything?’ I said.

‘Not really,’ Mom replied. ‘It just sort of tastes a tiny little bit the way grass smells when you cut it.’

‘That’s it?’ I said.

‘That’s it,’ she said, ‘and if it doesn’t taste like much of anything, I don’t suppose it’s going to do much of anything, either, although, as long as the cup is full, I guess I might as well drink all of it.’

The next morning, I woke up at the usual time, and it was while I was pulling a shirt over my head that I remembered Mom’s violet tea. I hurried down the stairs, or hurried as fast as I could without slipping on the narrow steps, and when I came down into the kitchen, my mother was sitting by the table.

‘I feel terrible,’ she groaned.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs so I could sit down.

‘I didn’t sleep very well,’ she said, leaning her head on her hand and running her hand through her hair.

‘Why not?’ I said.

She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes, as if she had been crying, except I knew she hadn’t been crying. This is the way Mom looked when she hadn’t slept very well.

‘All night long, I dreamed I was being chased,’ she said.

‘Chased by what?’ I said.

‘I dreamed I was being chased by’well’I feel ridiculous saying this,’ Mom said, ‘but I dreamed I was being chased by’well’by pink elephants.’

I was pretty sure that I had been listening to every word Mom said, but maybe not’because for just a second there, I was almost positive that my mother said she had dreamed she was being chased by pink elephants.

‘They were everywhere,’ Mom continued. ‘Big ones and little ones. Life-sized and miniature. In the barn. In the garden. In the house. Under the bed. In the closet. Down in the basement”

‘What kind of pink?’ I asked. ‘Were they pretty?’

Mom stared at me, eyebrows high on her forehead. ‘Were they pretty? What kind of a question is that?’

‘Were they a pretty color of pink? There’s all kinds of pink, you know. Dark pink. Light pink. Pink that’s almost red. Pink that’s a little orange, although I don’t like that kind of pink. And sometimes it seems like pink might have a little blue mixed with it.’

My mother began to laugh.

‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ she chortled. ‘Hee-hee-hee.’

Mom put her head down on her arms. ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ she snickered.

My mother lifted her head and looked at me. ‘Ohhhhh’ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Tee-hee.’

After a few minutes of helpless giggling, she was able to talk again.

‘The pink elephants weren’t even real,’ she gasped, wiping the tears out of her eyes. ‘They were stuffed toys.’

‘You dreamed about being chased by life-sized stuffed toy pink elephants?’ I said.

My mother nodded. ‘The big ones were out in the barn. The miniature ones were in the closet. The medium-sized ones were in the basement.’

‘Did I just hear you say that you dreamed about pink elephants?’ Loretta asked as she came downstairs.

Mom nodded. ‘Yes, pink elephants. Lots of pink elephants. All kinds of pink elephants. Pink elephants everywhere.’

‘Are you going to try the tea again?’ I asked. ‘I can go and pick some more violets for you.’

My mother shook her head. ‘No, no. Once was enough. The article said the violets would help you sleep. But it didn’t say anything about strange dreams.’

‘If that’s the side effect, I suppose it’s not worth it,’ Loretta said.

‘Not worth it a bit,’ Mom replied. ‘I slept all night, but since I feel like I spent the whole night being chased, I would rather lie awake. I think it’s more restful.’

The pan with the rest of the violet tea was still sitting on the countertop.

‘Can I taste the tea?’ I asked.

My mother shook her head. ‘Absolutely not. One person dreaming about pink elephants in this house is enough.’

‘Mom?’ I said. ‘Why did you dream about pink elephants? Why not purple ones, seeing as violets are purple?

‘And why elephants?’ Loretta said. ‘Why not cows? Or horses?’

My mother rubbed her eyes. ‘I wish I knew,’ she said. ‘As far as I can tell, there was no rhyme or reason to it.’

I turned to look out the kitchen window. From here, in the early morning sunshine, I could see some of the violets on the Bluff.

‘Would it be all right if I picked more violets when I get home from school today?’ I said. ‘So we can have them for a bouquet on the table?’

Mom stopped rubbing her eyes. ‘I would love a bouquet,’ she said. ‘Just as long as no one asks me to make tea.’

Right away when I came home from school in the afternoon, I went to the Bluff to pick more violets. Usually Mom only allowed one excursion to the Bluff each year to pick violets. She said we had too much work to do to waste time picking flowers. I also knew that in another week, the violets would be gone. Then we wouldn’t have any more until next year.

And as I plucked the violets out of the purple sea covering the hillside around me, I found myself thinking of my mother’s pink elephants.

Who would have thought that violets could make you dream about pink elephants?

Not Mom, that’s for sure.

If she had known, she wouldn’t have made the violet tea.

But if she hadn’t made the tea, then I wouldn’t be out here right now picking more violets. I would be back at the house’putting away the sheets and pillowcases my mother had ironed this afternoon.

And I don’t have to say that I would rather be picking violets.

Do I?

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