You think this summer is hot? Well, back in the ’50s …

By Niki Lewis Shepherd | July 31, 2023

During these weeks of severe heat and drought when it is easy to complain and feel justified in doing so, I think of my growing-up years. They were the dry ’50s. The location, a western Kansas cattle ranch. 

Each day ended with a prayer for rain. My favorite game was mirage, where my siblings and I would crawl the sandy road like lost cowboys on the desert crying, “Water! Water!” and pretend to see the shimmer of the mirage always just ahead.

But in the midst of this despair was my grandmother’s flower garden. She planted zinnias in rows like a crop of corn. Four o’clocks bloomed by the washhouse wall each afternoon. And flags (her term for iris) edged the sidewalk leading to the front door. 

By the back porch, white spirea arched over the foundation in a cool fan. Yucca, dug from the pasture, marked the front step and pushed their stalks skyward. Cherished geraniums withstood the brutal Kansas sun and wind and were saved and overwintered by a frosty window in her bedroom.

Years after the house stood vacant, most of these flowers and shrubs reappeared each summer, a tribute to a strong country woman.

This year in my own garden, zinnias in pots are a rainbow of color — enough bouquets to decorate every room. Black swallowtail butterflies lay eggs on the Florence fennel, and in what seems like an instant, the bright-green-striped caterpillars appear, growing fatter by the hour. 

Live-forever, a sedum given to me by a friend 40 years ago, reappears in a terraced bed after being crowded out by more moisture-loving plants. Flocks of goldfinch perch atop and sway the purple coneflower heads, choosing those that are dry and ripe with seed. Geraniums spill from pots by my front door. I pinch a leaf, and the pungent odor calls forth my grandmother’s face. And on a day when the air is so hot it sears your lungs, a surprise lily appears, a pink promise in the dry brown earth.

These hardy plants and memories of a time of drought remind me that the forever-present cycle of life ebbs and flows. We must all ride these waves and not let them batter us. 

Niki Lewis Shepherd is the author of The Wintering, a novel set in western Kansas in the 1880’s.