Gardenias and eggnog

Published 12:11am Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Joey Baer first saw his house in Tryon, he rushed to hug the gardenia bush. It was the biggest gardenia he and his mother, Jean, ever had seen, and Joey teared up at the sheer beauty of that lush green plant.

“That’s when I knew we’d found home,” Jean Muir Baer said. “I didn’t even have to look inside the house.”

Jean Muir Baer and Joey Baer
Jean Muir Baer and Joey Baer

Joey has a gift for appreciating beautiful scents and fine weather. He chose Tryon because it was in the Thermal Belt, a special place where palm trees and gardenias can grow. At their home in Tryon, one gardenia bush gets so full of flowers that they lay along the ground. Joey takes cuttings and has rooted new plants from that original one, using only water and wishes.

“I truly believe God led us here to this place,” Jean said.
She signs in American Sign Language as she speaks, so Joey can follow the conversation with ease. He smiles.

“We’re lucky we live here,” he signs.

Joey adapts his signs to fit people’s abilities to understand. With someone who knows a little American Sign Language, he makes slow, clear signs. With someone more fluent, his hands move quickly, like elegant white birds. He gestures. His dog, Toby, stands with him to take a walk around the garden.

“Butterfly,” Joey signs, pointing to a butterfly bush. “Purple, pink and white flowers.”

Joey recently transplanted a small black locust tree and hopes it will grow, because it has such beautifully scented white flowers. He also takes great delight in a pine tree with the bright green of new growth.

“Christmas in July,” he signs, and then he laughs, and the sound rings out, a strong tenor bell.

He likes contrasts, like peach pie and eggnog, spring and winter together. When Joey loves something, he loves it down to the ground, and he particularly loves eggnog. In 2007, he began collecting candles with the scent, and now he has more than 30 different eggnog candles. Sniffing each candle in turn evokes one pleasant sensation after the other, a symphony of scent. While it may appear to be a repetitious act, in fact, each candle carries a unique aroma, like a gentle breeze. He points out the subtle variations.

Joey has distinctive talents. He can tell what keys will fit certain locks. He remembers the weather on precise days of the year, and he has a knack for dates. For example, he remembers seeing eggnog in a grocery store, and knows that he saw it there on Sept. 22.

Jean plays guitar, and Joey can accompany her with his favorite percussion instrument, a wooden egg. Warm scents fill their home, along with a collection of exquisite art inherited from Jean’s aunt. It’s a place of peace, and when Joey goes to Polk County Vocational Rehabilitation three times a week, Jean relaxes with lovely zendoodles, a treat for the mind and the eye.

Although Jean has scant appreciation for eggnog, she does enjoy Joey’s abiding interest in NASCAR. He has several favorite drivers, including No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and No. 14 Tony Stewart, and he gladly will write a list of them. The mother and son enjoy races with friends. They also enjoy church at Grace Foothills, browsing at A Better Deal, and relaxing at Open Road Coffeehouse. Joey loves palm trees, so they enjoy Ricky’s Drive Inn and Strawberry Hill.

“He appreciates nature,” Jean says. “He literally watches leaves grow in the spring.”

Jean Baer remembers the rush of wonder she felt when her son took his very first steps. It was before he’d lost his words as a toddler, and he opened up his arms and said, “I love you.”

It felt like such a miracle to her. Joey had been only 2 lbs., 9 oz., at birth, and Jean spent the next three months as near to him as the incubator and hospital policies would allow.

Now, 29 years later, Joey brings a whole new dimension into every day of Jean’s life. Joey experiences the scents and vibrations of life with intensity, and he loves with his whole being.

“He’s the joy of my life,” Jean says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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