sweet pea

After several attempts at raising his mother's favorite flower, a sweet pea blooms on the garden fence in Craig Wenzel's patio garden in Wessington Springs. After this relatively small success, he vows the little flower will become a regular visitor to future gardens.

A mother's simple lesson lives on more than a century after her birth

Life on a prairie farm was difficult early in the 20th century. Money was scarce, electricity and all of the conveniences that are associated with it wouldn't arrive until decades later. 

And poverty was rampant as farm families struggled to be self-sufficient. My mother's childhood --big sister in a single mother household-- was incredibly hard. Born 102 years ago on a Jerauld County farm, Mary Whitlock lived the life of most big sisters, helping with chores, cooking, gardening and caring for brothers Ray and Bob Whitlock. 

The family scraped together what they could for sustaining life under the harsh South Dakota summer sun. Coal cost money that wasn't readily available, so winter warmth was often supplemented by twisting hay or gathering "cow chips" to burn in the centrally located heating stove.

She made sure her brothers arrived safely at school about a mile away and met her future husband, Don Wenzel, at the same place.

Back in those days the girls wore black leggings to school and white leggings to church on Sunday mornings. Mother had the black school leggings, but the white version was not one of the items in the family budget.

But something was growing in the garden out back that makes this story stick in my mind all these years later: stalks of sweet peas grew abundantly on the tattered fence that kept the occasional goat from feasting on the vegetables within.  "The other girls had white leggings for church," she said, "but I was the only one with a sweet pea blossom in her hair."

What an amazing lesson in life: don't dwell on the things you can't have; be happy with what you do have. She lived and taught that lesson the rest of her life. 

One of my mother's traits lives on through my three siblings and me: our love of nature and the appreciation of a nice garden. 

Remembering the white leggings story, I've tried to raise sweet peas in my garden several times. Alas, I'm not good at it and all attempts had failed. 

Late last winter, I tired of watching blizzards from the window next to my recliner and decided to plant some garden seeds. My only choice was the cute little flower that mother favored. 

Of the dozen seeds I started, just two survived until planting time. 

One of the plants has been climbing up the fence that keeps critters out of my little backyard garden. And a few days before what would have been my mother's birthday, a sweet pea blossom popped open and faced the sun.

The thought of that little girl proudly walking into church with a flower in her hair flashed through my mind. And I stood there on the patio, smelled  the bloom's sweetness and smiled.

Craig Wenzel is a former True Dakotan editor/publisher