Like some sort of airborne grasshopper, the yellow crop duster dips and swoops above the white fields. The flier has little to worry about here, one small clump of trees and a single row of power lines along a dusty gravel road. There is a hypnotic beauty to his dance; an upward loop and a flip and then he”s again skimming across the tops of cotton plants, leaving a fine mist in his wake.
I stop for a moment to watch the yellow insect”s acrobatics. There is a certain death-defying thrill to it, the speed, the precision, the low altitude. A high-wire act in front of an audience of one. It is Friday afternoon, and I am rumbling down the back roads of Noxubee on my way to visit a Mennonite couple I met two days earlier.
Helen Giesbrecht and her husband, Dean, live in a ranch-style home at the intersection of Baldwyn Road and Magnolia Drive. Their house is a small island in vast sea of cotton waiting to be picked.
The Giesbrechts are part of the Mennonite community that settled in this area in the early 60s when land was cheap and the price of soybeans was on the rise. By the 1980s, there was a glut of beans, and the Mennonites, renowned locally for their farming prowess, moved to corn, catfish and even cotton.
But not Helen Giesbrecht. She plants cannas. Red cannas. You know, those tall upright plants with large, floppy leaves. You see them in front of sharecropper shacks and in big city botanical gardens. A bit gaudy and often disheveled, they are as much a part of the Southern landscape as kudzu.
Helen planted her flowers about three years ago along a grassy strip between a cotton field and a gravel road. There are about 20 of them, perfectly spaced and aligned with the power lines above.
The first time I saw them I was struck by the poignancy of it. Amid miles of unrelenting commercial agriculture on this seldom traveled road, someone was offering this small paean to beauty. With all the dust, heat and herbicides, it seemed so implausible. Yet, there they were, for anyone who cared to notice.
I often travel down Magnolia Road, and more than once have taken the route home that allows me to see that row of flowers. Something about them lifts the spirit. When I took that route Wednesday, a woman was standing by the road watering. I stopped and met the Giesbrechts.
They”ve been married 37 years and have five grown children. Dean has farmed, taught school and is now an R.N. at Noxubee General. He cracked a joke about becoming a nurse after reading an article in this newspaper about traveling R.N.s; the next thing he knew he was a 53-year-old nursing student at Mississippi University for Women.
During our conversation Friday, Helen offered me iced tea and coffee. While she prepared a tray of cold cuts and olives, crackers and a plate of homemade peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies to go with the tea, Dean recalled how they met.
“I”d heard about those pretty Miller girls,” he said. “The first time I saw her I was living in Clarksdale. She was wearing a blue flowered dress.”
He first spoke with her a year later after he moved to Noxubee to teach at the Mennonite school.
“This time she was wearing a light green dress,” he said.
Those Miller girls do make an enduring impression.
In the beginning, they spoke often at school where Helen also taught, but Dean, fearing he wasn”t being the role model he needed to be for his students, cut off communication.
A few months later, as is the custom in the Mennonite community, Dean made his wishes known to Helen through a minister. She accepted his proposal for marriage
“A lot of our couples do that,” says Dean. “We encourage a non-contact courtship.”
As for the flowers, Dean wasn”t so keen about the idea in the beginning. He was afraid they might complicate their son”s farming.
“That was a bone of contention between us,” says Helen, who says she finds fulfillment in gardening. “My dad used to say, ”I like to see things grow.” I guess I”m like my dad.”
Helen said she had some extra canna rootstock and, hating to “throw stuff away,” decided to plant them along the road.
Neighbor Mary Spearing was the first to offer compliments. More than once someone has remarked to Dean or Helen, “Oh, you live where the flowers are.”
Benny Haynes, another neighbor, brought over an extra hose and even waters the flowers for Helen on occasion. She since replaced the cannas with more robust knockout roses and crepe myrtle.
As for Dean, his position has softened.
He now helps Helen water. She drives the pickup and he sprays water from at tank in the back.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.