Mistletoe’s mysterious ability to shake a few memories loose

December 10, 2021

A traffic jam on Route 1 resulting from a crash near the Broadkill Bridge Tuesday morning sent me backtracking and through Milton to catch Cave Neck Road.

Coming out of town on the street that passes the town’s wastewater plant and a church, clumps of mistletoe in the season’s leafless trees caught my eyes. It was in the low marshy section where the road crosses a small branch of the Broadkill before it rises again into the uncharacteristically (for Sussex) hilly high ground on the way to the Cave Neck Road intersection.

The headwaters of the river pass through that pleasantly undulating terrain southeast of town.

A few pairs of mallards in their tandem dances sailed over the marsh. Above them, high echelons of snow geese, heading from roosts on Delaware Bay to the county’s inland fields, flapped their wings quickly, noiselessly.

I expressed quiet gratitude to the mistletoe for pulling my eyes skyward where the waterfowl flew, for reminding me of loving kisses during the holidays, and for shaking loose a few associated memories of the past:

Cold holiday boat trips on the Broadkill at Christmastime with children and grandchildren, hot chocolate and a little whisky, passing Smith’s Family Campground and the ancient, arched, brick burial vault in the bank of the river near Heavelow’s Landing.

Just above that, where blooming magnolias hung over the river and nearly fainted us with their thick, sweet scent on full moon trips in June –  there, the low branches of swamp maples held clumps of white-berried mistletoe easily reachable with clippers from the deck of Nellie Lankford, promising more kisses.

In the living room/kitchen/dining room of the Bowden family’s modest home in the woods along Old Mill Road just west of the Nassau overpass. Early December. Fresh cool air, inside and out. Heaps of pine greens, red-berried holly branches and bunches of delicate turkey beard covered every horizontal surface on tables and counters, and in corners of the linoleum-clad floor, too. The only open space was in the center of the Formica-topped kitchen table edged in thin, wide-ribbed stainless steel, all chairs pushed aside. Foot-diameter circles of thick wire held that space, ready to receive the various greens to be attached for fresh Christmas wreaths.

A young reporter with a camera tracking a seasonal story.

They say smell is our most reminiscent sense. The cool, moist smell of all that earthy greenery in the Bowden home, exactly the same as the smell in a cold, leaf-carpeted woods after a rain, is as sharply etched in my brain now as it was 45 years ago when I first inhaled the scene.

This was a seasonal cottage industry at its purest and best. Mr. Bowden came and went in his woods gatherings. At least once during my visit, he traipsed off slowly to a secret location in the woods surrounding his house where his perennial patch of turkey beard grew.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bowden quietly bent smaller wires and carefully attached the greenery to the hoop, transforming it lovingly into a Christmas decoration to adorn someone’s door, to help put them in the mood of the holidays.

Rumpelstiltskin hardly did better by spinning straw into gold. This was Christmas money for the Bowdens, a profitable holiday tradition of decades, passed down to them in all likelihood from parents and grandparents.

They had their annual customers who gladly paid them their price for the wreaths, and more, because that’s what the spirit of the holidays often does.

No different from Bruce Burton coming around our offices at the holidays with a shallow cardboard box filled with baggies loaded with sprigs of mistletoe plucked that morning from trees he had climbed.

“How much, Bruce?”

“Two bucks a bag, Dennis.”

“That’s a bargain at twice the price.”

We would laugh.

“I’ll take four of them.”

Handed him a ten.

“Keep the rest.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you, Bruce. Thanks for spreading a little love around.” 





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