by Phyllis Mannan
I didn’t like my first name, Phyllis. Why couldn’t I have been called Susan or Sarah—or even my middle name, Ann? Then I read in college that Phyllis comes from a Greek word that means green leaf. I’d always liked the family story about my namesake, too. My dad grew up in a poor family. His father was discouraged about his financial situation and quit looking for work. At a young age, Dad took a job to help support his family. The bright spot in his life was his visit each summer to his Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Will’s farm in Kansas. They taught him how to plow the land, swing a hammer, and work until a job was done—skills and values that stayed with him throughout his life. My name combined the freshness of a green leaf with the sturdiness of a bough.
My parents married when my mother was two weeks shy of eighteen. Four children followed: two boys and two girls. As the oldest child, I often took care of my younger brothers and sister while my parents planted a patch of strawberries or picked beans and corn for canning. We lived on three sloping acres a mile above the small town of Scappoose, Oregon. Mother churned cream from our cow to make butter. After the cream thickened, she molded the butter into flat, round patties and traced a tulip with a paring knife on top of each one. At Easter, she sewed new silk flowers onto the navy hat she wore to church every Sunday.
My father built our house during evenings after work at the shoe factory. From the time I was a year old, we lived in an unfinished house. Every few months, after we children were in bed, Mother led my father on a tour of the unfinished rooms. “How can I keep this plywood floor clean? . . . What about this pile of boards by the bathroom? . . . When are you going to finish the trim around the fireplace?” Her voice rose as they moved about the house. I shifted in my bed.
By the time I was thirteen, Dad had completed most of the house. Mother painted the living room walls forest green and ordered drapes the same color for the two picture windows. Above the new walnut buffet in the dining area, she hung an oil painting of an idyllic country house under oak trees with a palette of moss and fern green. As a teenager, I often found my mother sitting in her green room with the curtains drawn, keeping out sunlight and the view of the street. What was she doing?
After I had a family of my own, I understood why she needed a space for herself—a cool, ordered space. Parenting tested every principle I’d taken for granted. Our oldest son’s autism and bipolar disorder, our middle child’s attention deficit and conduct disorders, and our daughter’s depression and anxiety were life-altering and continue to affect them as adults.
I’ve lived my whole life in northwest Oregon, where hills and valleys breathe with green. Douglas fir and alder shelter roadsides. On the north Oregon coast, my home now, the large, quilted leaves of salal and the small, pointed leaves of wild huckleberry bring me peace.
I never thought about the influence my name wielded, but I’m certain it, together with my birth place in the family, added to my seriousness and feeling of responsibility. It called me to be a green leaf and a strong bough. At times my color has gone from green to purple, a bruise I lighten by walking on the beach, attending to God, and writing poems; by living with lilacs and iris—and their green leaves.
First published in RAIN magazine