Counting Blessings

This has been a challenging week at our house. Bill is gradually recovering from his bout with pneumonia. He was in the ER on Thursday night and Friday morning. By Monday evening I had a sore throat. I was terrified that I was going to be laid low by pneumonia, too, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. I felt like crap for a couple of days, but it never got any worse than that.

This morning at breakfast Bill asked what this week’s blog was going to be about, and I told him I had no idea. But then I went to get my steps by walking laps around the pool in actual sunlight and started counting my blessings for the week, I remembered an email that came in early on from an 82 year-old reader in Enterprise, Alabama. She and her younger sister in Texas have only recently discovered my books and are on a mission to read them all.

That’s hardly surprising. I’ve been flying under lots of readers’ radars for decades, but what really struck me was the PS she added in a second email. She referred to herself as “an old white-haired woman” and went on the mention that she has several pots of Night Blooming Cereus growing in her home. What that told me is that she’s read Hour of the Hunter, my first Walker Family book, and one that has always been one of my favorites.

When I began writing the Walkers, I wanted to make reservation life come alive for people who had never heard of the Desert People and who would most likely never visit that part of the Arizona desert where the Tohono O’odham have lived for thousands of years.

As a librarian on the reservation, I told 26 stories a week in K-6 classrooms, and among the stories I told were the folktales and legends of the TO Nation. Many of those feature Iitoi, the Tohono O’odham’s spirit of goodness. Those are considered to be winter-telling tales and are only to be told between the middle of November and the middle of March. The belief is that if a snake or lizard overhears an Iitoi story, they can swallow the storyteller’s luck and bring them harm.

I found that out the hard way when I told the story of Iitoi and Eagleman in April one year, and a parent called the principal to complain. I’ve been careful to abide by that rule ever since, with one major exception.

Of the Tohono O’odham stories, the two favorites with the kids were Iitoi and Eagleman and Old White-Haired Woman. In the second one, a brave grandmother goes on a heroic mission to retrieve her orphaned grandson from another tribe. On the way home, the weary woman is fast losing her strength when Iitoi steps into the picture. He tells her that since she is so brave, the child will be saved. As for her? Her tired feet will be taken underground, but once a year she will turn into the most beautiful flower in the world—the Night Blooming Cereus—the Queen of the Night.

By the way, the Night Blooming Cereus is a mysterious plant. The stalks look like scrawny, dead sticks, but once a year they all bloom on the same night. No amount of scientific study has been able to develop a way to predict exactly when that will happen. It generally occurs sometime between the middle of June and the middle of July, but studies of humidity and temperature have not yet allowed scientists to crack the code. There’s generally a 48 hour warning before the bloom happens, but that’s it.

Tohono Chul (Desert Corner), a desert botanical garden in Tucson, has a whole collection of Night Blooming Cereus, and on the night of the bloom, they hold a big celebration. It used to be that when the 48-hour advance warning happened, they had a phone tree to let people know. Now they send out emails or texts. And every year, during the bloom party, they have someone read aloud the story of Old White-Haired Woman from Hour of the Hunter.

One year, they asked me to do the reading. Of course I said yes, but then I realized: Wait a minute, July is a long way after the middle of March. So I called the organizer back. After explaining the winter telling tale problem to her, I said I was sorry, but that I wouldn’t be able to do the reading after all.

It turns out, Tohono Chul keeps a medicine man on call. They consulted with him and he said. “We’re not telling those stories in the villages any more, and this is the real story. I can’t imagine that Iitoi himself would object to Mrs. Jance reading the story the night of the bloom.”

Feeling as though I’d just had the Good Housekeeping Stamp of approval printed on my forehead, I was honored to go to the bloom and tell the story. The scent of the Queen of the Night is incredible, reminiscent of orange blossoms but entirely different. That night Tohono Chul was alive with that aroma. And I know for sure there were snakes and lizards out, because they had people with snake sticks out removing the creatures from guests walking those nighttime paths. As far as I can tell none of them managed to swallow my luck or bring me har.

So that’s what my old white-haired woman reader brought back to me this week, not only the memory of telling that story to kids on the reservation, but also the memory of reading it the night of the bloom.

For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience. And I’m sharing it with you today because, while I was outside counting my steps, I was also counting my blessings.

Photograph by John Schaefer

38 thoughts on “Counting Blessings

  1. Perfect story to read this morning since I finished Queen of the Night at midnight. My 76 year old self could not put it down. Tears came to my eyes when Brandon thought Diana had early onset Alzheimer’s. We are so seemingly fragile as we age and the unknown so fraught with our imagination. Prayers for your husband continuing his successful recovery. Thanks to you for all the humanity, kindness and warmth in your novels.

  2. So glad to hear that you and Bill are doing ok.
    My Daughter just moved to Marana, Az. when she told me they bought a house in Marana in a fly in community, I said where in the world is that? She sent me a Zillow link I opened the link looked at the gorgeous house pictures and then mapped the area and immediately thought of you, your Walker Books, Joanna Brady and your blogs.

    On Sunday we are driving out there from Orange County, Ca. My husband will stay a few days , play around with his photography equipment but I’m staying for 10 days to take care of my Grandfurs , the 3 cats and 2 dogs. She has sent me photos of all kinds of wild life and blooming cactus and tips how to remove chollas from the dogs. The last one triggered another memory from your books.
    On the map there is the Bisbee Breakfast Club dinner, I’m looking forward to stopping in but I don’t think I’ll be doing too much sightseeing with heat. Maybe a nighttime trip to the Desert Museum but then again the photos and videos she has sent from her property, even out her kitchen window of the quails I’m sure I will be busy enough at the house.
    She reminds me to check the pool for toads and lizards, big lizards before jumping in .?
    I’m taking my beading projects and will download some of your books to listening to while I bead away the heat of the day.

  3. I’m so glad your husband is better and your cold seems to be short lived. I love today’s story you shared with us. How you incorporated the time of your sharing to the children as a librarian and how you used it in writing Hour of the Hunter. I so look forward to Fridays, reading your emails!

  4. Just this week I was thinking of how blessed I am. I may be wobbly on my feet, but I am able to walk after being paralyzed from the waist down and at 85 my health is excellent even though I am diabetic and have hyper-tension, both controlled. So, continue to count your blessings as I count mine.

    I haven’t gotten to the Walker series yet, All caught up with Beaumont and working through Brady, but Walker will be next.

    Looking forward to meeting you in person in August.

  5. What a wonderful story! As with everything you’ve written. I should not be amazed anymore. I am getting better at reading the Native American words in your stories. At first they would interrupt my reading “flow” but not so much anymore. I say that’s a good thing. Thank you.

  6. As an Arizona resident, I am so enamored of your respect of our indigenous peoples who were here first. I appreciate your tales! I feel your work belongs on my shelf next to Tony Hillerman and Anne Hillerman. Both authors who treat our first people with the respect they deserve. When I retired four years ago, one of the first things I did was to re-read all your books in order of their story lines. I look forward to each new book, and how many pre steps you have completed!

    • Your blog set me off on a line of thinking about how incredible it is to have so many memories. When people talk about the benefits of aging, they usually don’t mention the entire library of memories each of us carries — the good, the purely awful, the transcendent, the traumatic, the happy — all these stories packed in our brains!! So thank you for this blog and the sharing of some of your memories with us (and in such a marvelous and rich manner, too!)

  7. Blessings come so often, sometimes they’re too small to register, but they’re always coming in many different sizes, colors and shapes.

  8. I love hearing stories about plants. As a gardener I am happy every year when things start growing again with no help from me. I’d love to see that cactus.

  9. Beautiful blog, Judy, on so many levels. Glad that Bill is recuperating and that you did not get sick. While you are counting your blessings, please know that you are a blessing to us, your readers, as well as to so many personally.

  10. Judy,
    Quiet tears fell from my eyes as I read your blog today. You always show respect where it is due and you remind all of us to count our blessings. It is so easy to become complacent and then be shaken to the core when we realize that all we hold dear is fragile and needs to be held very close and tightly. The beautiful “Queen of the Night” is a perfect example of how fleeting is everything around us and the urgency to make our time count. Reading all of your books has allowed me to travel, learn, explore, and express my thoughts of love, hate, anger, fear, and every other emotion, all through meeting your many characters. I dread the day if you ever decide to quit writing.

  11. Glad to hear that you and Bill are doing ok. Being in the hospital is scary. I’ll have to go back and read the story in Hour of the Hunter–hope I can find it.

  12. I’m so glad to hear that Bill is better and that you dodged the pneumonia bullet! Thank you for the Bloom story; your respect for the traditional tale telling practice is inspirational.


  13. Loved this memory! I had a friend that had one of these night blooming ceres. He would alert when the night was coming. We would gather in his garden to enjoy the beauty, aroma and friends. It always seemed the most magical night. The darkness seemed to surround us…like being draped over our bodies. The sky always seemed to be watching the blooms and us enjoying the night. Thanks for sharing. Hope you and your husband are getting better.

  14. Love this story. Definitly appreciate it after living on Navaho and across the highway from the Hopi Reservation. Hae lost touch with friends and coworkers over the years but still remember. Am glad Bill is starting on the road to recoveryl My hubby is finally getting strength and energy back after having pnuemonia in September. After last round of blood work I questioned them on the one test and they ran it again for iron. Lows and behold it was very low. Has been on iron for a month now and is the last week has had energy and feels so much better. He will be 82 next month., So am wishing Bill a speedoy recovery and thanks for the great blog.

  15. I remember, in 1998, my late wife wanted to go see the Queen of the Night bloom at the Desert Botanical Gardens…I watched the daily newspaper for the bloom schedule, and even though she had lived in the desert Southwest for most of her life (when she wasn’t being dragged around the world by my military career), she had forgotten they only bloom on one night.

    The notice appeared in the paper…but she’d just spent the day getting chemotherapy, and said she just didn’t feel up to going. We’d go the next night.

    Imagine her dismay when we showed up the next night, and there were no blooms. She passed away in October of that year, so she passed without seeing them bloom one last time.

  16. Glad to hear you and Bill are doing better. We had a similar experience, but my husband recovered sooner, my doctor suggested next year getting RSV vaccine for myself. I had a cough for several weeks.
    I am happy to see your blog was on my computer this morning, it had not been for two weeks.
    I enjoy your books so much, I’m thinking of rereading them again. Joanna Brady is one of my favorites.

  17. Love this blog, as per usual. 🙂
    And like the old quote says, “When I count my blessings, I count you.”
    Back in the 1960s and ’70s my folks, Roy and Marjie Peterson, had a Night Blooming Cereus on their Richland WA patio. They would invite the neighbors over for a bloom party each year.
    Hi to Bill, xx, Annie

  18. I don’t know if you are aware that the stone walls on two sides ofPunahou School in Honolulu (Barack Obama’s lama Mater) are topped by night blooming cereus “vines” portions of which date back to the 1830’s.

    It’s quite something to see a couple of hundred feet of cereus blossoms on a summer evening.

  19. I have a night blooming cereus. The blooms are gorgeous. My mother-in-law gave me a cutting from her plant about 40 years ago. While I lived in N.J. It only bloomed once. Since moving to Florida 19 years ago, it has bloomed every year with multiple blooms. I gave a cutting to my daughter who also lives in Florida. She has had the same success with her plant.

  20. “Queen Of The Night” is my favorite Walker book- It is truly magical, though some of it is terribly sad-
    I love Tohono Chul, and when we are in Tucson we always have a daily, wonderfully soothing brunch there- Almost always outside in the garden- For us New Yorkers, it is truly Paradise-
    I love strolling on the walking paths, as lizards make their way purposefully along them- I love the desert plants, and the desert birds, such as the “Cactus Wren-”
    Even though I am very fond of the deep green forests of the northeast, I love the Southwestern deserts just as much, maybe at times a little more-
    Your talk of Tohono Chul makes me long to be there this very minute!

  21. I love this story about the relationship with the people when you were a librarian and through the Walker series and the stories here. I really like the Walker series best, and only found our about them after I read the other ones, probably not avaiable to bloom here in Puget Sound, but the spirituals worlds are endless.

  22. What a lovely story. The Marie Selby Gardens in Sarasota has a night blooming Cereus and it’s a big event every year when it blooms. Unfortunately I don’t believe they tell the Old White Haired Woman story. I’m relieved to hear Bill is on the mend.

  23. I would like to get one or more of these cacti. From what you say they should be blooming now, or soon. Would I keep it inside or outside & is this the right time of year to buy? I checked on line & they are priced all over the $$ is there anywhere you suggest I look? I live in Yuma, AZ & have read all of your books, I’m very grateful to you.

  24. I am glad Bill is better and that you never got pnemonia.
    Also I enjoyed your story about the flower. It was very nice.

  25. For years, my favorite scent was Desert Queen, based on the Night Blooming Cerus. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the woman who made it got Long Covid and had to quit making it. Paul set up an intensive search of all the sites that might still have some, and we even stopped at some resorts and casinos as we were travelling to see if they might still have some. No luck. We keep checking back to see if she’s started making it again and still haven’t found any. I have a carefully hoarded quarter bottle that I only wear on special occasions.

  26. What a lovely bloom and story. I think I first read of this plant in a Mrs. Pollifax book a very long time ago. Of course thought it was a made up plant name at that time.

    So happy you and Bill are both coming around health wise.

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