original illustrations by Shirley Dunn-Perry, earth blooming

Living My Grandmother’s Values

Shirley Dunn-PerryMy grandmother Stella taught me how to pick wildflowers, to break the violet’s stem close to the ground, being careful not to crush the delicate petals. Searching for Mayflowers, we’d scratch the earth under decaying leaves from the previous fall. Her rough hands would guide mine to a small vine, and we’d gently tug. Up would pop a trail of pink and white blossoms, the smell so sweet that I’d want to rub them on my cheeks.

Grammy was the fastest blueberry picker in our community. She’d hang a quart kettle around her neck, and carry two gigantic galvanized milk buckets all over  the berry patch. I’d be lying on my back watching the clouds change shape, berry juice running down my face onto my shirt. “Keep picking,” she’d holler at me.

We didn’t talk about how much we loved the earth, or how grateful we were for the abundance of nature. We lived and breathed our love.

I paint watercolors of flowers, hoping to instill my sense of beauty to others. Painting outdoors, I try to capture the feeling of peace in a place. As my brush splashes pigments, nature nurtures me, filling me with with an intoxicating elixir. It’s hard to come home. The four walls set me apart from feeling connected to something much greater than me.

My grandmother refused to have electricity put in her home. Yes, it was expensive, and she didn’t have the money, but I think it was because she somehow knew that it would mess up the seasons of her soul. She rose and went to bed with the sun. Daily she cleaned her kerosene lantern, and carried in wood for the stove and water from her well. When the well went dry in the hottest part of summer, she knew where to dig for a hidden stream in back of the church.

I write poetry to celebrate nature, trying to put into words the unnameable essence of what I see and feel.


trees speak silence

arms up

roots down


from the beginning

a seed

Sometimes I’d sleep at my grandmothers, and the feather mattress would be prickly and itchy. We’d see shooting stars or the northern lights. Grammy would listen to my endless stream of questions, and often give no answers. We let the mystery unfold in the dark, and we’d fall asleep filled with awe at the world we lived in.

In January I went on a thirty day silent retreat. Some days I’d take a sandwich, hot tea, and an apple, and go hiking. One time I caught sight of a small bird with a reddish back. I tried to follow as it flew from cactus to cactus. The last time I saw it, its head turned towards me, and I was shocked to see a white face with strong black marking, two streaks down each side. I gasped at the beauty, and stood stunned for a few minutes. Later I found out that it was an American Kestrel.

Grammy cooked simple meals. Trout, or salt cod. Moose and deer meat. Beans and potatoes. Vegetables from the summer garden. Molasses cookies the size of a small plate. Dried apples from the previous fall. On special occasions, she’d make a ginger bread. No icing. No whipped cream. Nothing fancy.

My husband and I try to live a simple life. We studied the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robbins and Joe Dominguez when it came out in 1992. Joining a group of like-minded friends, we met monthly to compare notes. One couple paid cash for their house. Others made a dream come true, and traveled around the world. We were inspired, and sold everything, and traveled for 10 months.

It wasn’t just about money, it was about being conscious of being consumers, and the impact that has on everyone’s life. We’re far from perfect, and when I once tried to water down Jim’s favorite apple juice, we drew some basic boundaries.

Grammy saved everything. A piece of string would be wound, and stored. Empty tin cans had multiple uses. She’d wash the burlap bags of hen feed, and hook rugs out of them. As a child I didn’t understand or value her simplicity, but her values permeate my life today.

I’m overwhelmed with the possibility that we are destroying our planet, our home, our temple. I look for ways that I can make a difference, causes I can support. I’m encouraged that so many people are doing courageous projects in the face of impending doom.

Last summer we gathered our family together (as many as we could get), and talked about one’s son commitment to wake people up to climate change. It was a sobering conversation, with a lot of smart people (adult and children) in the room. We made no noble plans or came up with any breakthrough solutions, but we began a conversation as a family, as overwhelming as it was.

I’m a deeply spiritual person who wonders a lot about the meaning of life and  purpose. Sometimes it’s easy for me to disassociate from the issues, and float in an esoteric reverie.

Each morning I walk and pray. Caressing leaves, smelling flowers, listening to bird song, I ask the wind to take my prayers to the hearts of our planet’s decision makers. I have great faith that we will change our destructive habits.

It’s impossible to go back to the life my grandmother lived, but it is possible to live her values: simplicity, reverence, and respect for the earth we live on.

Shirley Dunn Perry is an artist, poet, and retired nurse. She inspires
people to change.

Wish to contact Shirley?

Website, Poetry, Love Light and a Dream (Shirley’s book; purchase here)