The last garden post overlooked some moments and photos so I’m backtracking a bit. I planted these Forget Me Nots years ago and they’ve always done okay but this year one of the plants in a part-sun location bloomed as never before, and I managed to capture the true blue, which is often elusive with a digital camera. Also having a good year is the only peony bush I planted myself. It’s taken a few years but now it blooms almost as much as the plants that were here when we moved in. I thought that the flowers would be orangey red but they turned out magenta, which is fine with me. It is an exact match with the magenta in the Crayola Crayon box, which my best friend and I fought over as if it was the most important thing in the world. It must have been second or third grade, and when I think of us sitting in their breakfast room off the kitchen it seems almost quaint to think of us, coloring and arguing so earnestly. My own girl hoarded the red crayons as a toddler, flatly refusing to share, a fierce scowl on her face. We clearly have a gene that predisposes us to jealously guard art supplies. I still love to color with crayons.
And the astilbe – it’s a monster that gets bigger every year and I love it. There were several in the garden when we arrived, but the rest of them are tepid at best while this one now dominates and has practically swallowed up the dephiniums next to it. I didn’t really appreciate the delicate beauty of this plant until I visited Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, MA, last year, The Mount. There’s a lovely labyrinth below the house that is completely made up of white astilbe and we happened to visit when it was in full bloom. Spectacular.
Not everything is growing like gangbusters. The hydrangea has been giving us fits, because it is bigger than ever but not blooming like everyone else’s. After much consulting and cajoling and applying copious amounts of water, fertilizer and coffee grounds, it finally squeaked out some blossoms. I did so many things I have no idea which, if any, of them, did the trick. The blooms are beautiful at every stage and they last for so long, changing slowly from green to white to blue.
Astilbe and hydrangeas are part of our present – plants I’ve only come to appreciate recently – while the peonies and lilacs and always pull me into the past. The rhododendrons span across the decades, reminding me of the enormous ones in the gardens at MIT and the even bigger ones that bloom for graduation on the perimeter of Killian Court. It’s quite a sight.
I found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.
This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:
It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.
It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.
“How could you possibly know?” he asked.
“I just do.”
My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.
It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.
Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.
It’s that “home before dark” moment. Houses peek out from yellow eyes, a perfect clear sky starts faded blue at the horizon to deepest sapphire overhead, the leaves slip from green into velvet black and the air smells of cut grass and warm pavement. The time when you never want the evening or the summer to end.
Right now that hope is a little dim, given that the wars we have now are coming to a close (if we can call it that) with more of a whimper than a VE Day/VJ Day bang.
NPR ran a touching story on Honor Flight New England, an organization that offers free trips to DC for WW II vets so they can visit the monuments to their service. One surviving vet said, though long-held tears, that in all the years since he came home he thought of his service as a waste – he buried those memories and never spoke about it. On this trip, however, he said he finally understood that his service meant something and, knowing how grateful people are for his service, he would do it again ten times over. A number of people said that the veterans in their family never spoke of the war or showed any interest in war movies or documentaries. That came as somewhat of a relief to me because my father only spoke of his service in the Pacific the war in small details, although he watched every episode of The World at War and read every book it though the years. He was so pleased when his war buddy came to town – a towering man named Jim who, in uniform as I recall, would delight us with his strength by tearing a phone book in half.
Dad would pull out the atlas and show me the places with exotic names in the Philipines where he was a harbor pilot. I was very young when we did this together – we made a game out of my mispronunciation of Catbalogan – and it seemed to me then that he felt kind of lucky to be an Iowa boy navigating the ocean on big ships. I once asked him why he didn’t drink coffee and he said “I had a lifetime’s worth of coffee in the war.” That’s as much as I ever recall hearing about life on a Navy ship. After he died in 1992, I read his letters home to his mother and they seemed to chronicle the times in ways that were unremarkable. In the few photos I have of him, he is smiling. Some people interpret this as him blocking out the mean experiences of war – that there were stories too terrible to be told. I really don’t know.
What strikes me now is that in the age of instant global communication, we are not under any illusion about what our soldiers are facing overseas. They do not have the luxury, if you can a call it that, of burying the atrocities of war when they come home. It’s on TV, the internet and at the movies. The Greatest Generation had On the Town, South Pacific and From Here to Eternity – our guys have Platoon, The Hurt Locker, and Jarhead. I suspect there won’t be a musical about Afghanistan any time soon.
We are losing more soldiers to suicide at home than we are on deployment. It’s hard to know what to do to help, although we should make sure vets get the mental health services they need and their benefits on time, neither of which is happening now. In the meantime, I hope that, unlike some of the men in the NPR story, today’s servicemen and women don’t have to wait 60 years to hear their fellow citizens say “thank you.”
We are in the midst of a year of milestones, most of which I would like to ignore. One welcome distraction is chronicling the progress of the garden. I am not an expert gardener (but am lucky to have friends that are) but found a few years back that once I planted a perennial that actually bloomed for a second season, I was hooked. What I love even more than the plants, sun and earth is the few minutes spent each morning with my husband as we look to see what has changed over the past day – new blooms, spots that need something more, what will bloom next.
As I sift through the photos of the last six weeks, I cannot help but think about the days on which I took them and the times during which I planted some things.
We were greeted by brash red tulips when we return from a trip over April vacation. It was a trip that alternated between doing fun things, seeing old friends, eating great food and being glued to screens as we watched in morbid fascination the events after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Looking at the red tulips at home, I remembered that it was after September 11, 2001, that I began gardening in earnest. It was a hot, dry, fall that year, as if the clouds had been chased away by the smoke from New York. I realized that I had spent those first years in our home inside with babies and toddlers and that now they were old enough that I could spent a few of our outdoor minutes – very few – away from the swing set and sandbox. As I planted bulbs that October – hoping against hope that the right end of them was pointing up – a neighbor strolled up and asked what I was doing. My answer surprised even me. I told him that everything I had done to make that house a home was on the inside. After renting for so many years, I felt I had been holding back on the idea of putting down roots in this place. But September 11 had told me to embrace the life we have and the place we have chosen, however temporary. Planting bulbs was a way of taking ownership of this life and my role in it. The bulbs I planted that day? Red tulips.
Tulips are daring. They poke through when nothing else is willing to go first, and sometimes they betray us and don’t come back. All of the tulips planted by the previous owner are gone now, and the numbers of my own tulips (except the red ones) are already dwindling.
These pink ones go through phases when they bloom – they start out kind of hairy and menacing, the colors pale and cool like the light, and then suddenly they warm up and open joyously. Early spring is such an interesting combination of cold and barely warm, as if nature hasn’t quite adjusted the controls on the colors yet.
Crazy forsythia yellow and tulip red are set against barely discernible pink and blue hyacinths. These tulips, which take a long time to open, seem to follow the progress of color with the seasonal light, drawing the warm pigments up from the soil. I think of this image every year when we wake up one gray November morning to find that the bright autumn colors have been completely drained from the landscape. It’s like all of the pigments get sucked down into the earth until spring, when the color faucets slowly creak open and the colors bubble back up to the surface. It’s a story that might make a good picture book someday.
The creeping phlox (first lavender, then pink) and candy tuft are next, and I am glad to see they are making their way around the garden lamps and the tulips because I much prefer them to mulch as a backdrop. My goal is for the perennials and ground covers to fill in so completely that someday we will only need to mulch around the maple. Now that I think about that, it might spell an earlier demise for the tulips. I will have to look it up.
The peonies, astilbe, day lilies and irises start to fill in while the lazy hostas decide whether they are going to disappoint me again. Everyone in the world can grow so many hostas they have to dig the extras up and give them away, but not me. The hostas that do bother to return unfurl a leaf or two and then run out of steam. They are in league with the Pachysandra, I think, which continues to make pathetic showing. But this year the hostas look better than usual, and if they come through then I will post a photo. I won’t jinx it yet.
A good thing about daffodils, my friend T. pointed out, is that the leaves stay beautifully green long after the blooms are gone. No so for tulips, and one reason they don’t last is that we probably trim the droopy yellow leaves earlier than we should.
Then the Japanese maple shows its leaves and we know spring is truly here to stay. The garden sits where once there were two more trees lining the stone walk – a flowering pear and a paper birch. But even as they provided welcome shade in the summer, there wasn’t enough water or earth in this former gravel pit to sustain all three trees so we cut the other two down in favor of the maple, and it has thrived ever since, becoming a beloved tree that would make Joyce Kilmer proud. During winter storms we go out to shake any heavy snow or ice off its branches, sometimes in the middle of the night, we are so worried about losing it.
As the phlox peak and the tulips and daffodils fade, the azalea lights up such a bright orangey red that I think of it as a burning bush. Springtime seems to often bring big moments (births, deaths, graduations) and I have many memories of sitting by the window, looking at the bush and trying to cull some kind of wisdom from the flowers. Now and then, a hummingbird pays a lighting quick visit, and that is always a good day.
Today is the 18th anniversary of my father’s death; my mourning has come of age. The hot days of summer bring back all kinds of memories of him and playing them back and filling in details is a process that seems to dominate every July. As much as I love him, most of the years we spent in the same house would never make a highlight film of his life. And as much as he loved me, I am haunted by the bittersweet feeling and misplaced sense of responsibility that there are people and tasks that merited his attention and did not get it.
Depending on how you look at it I was in both the right place at the right time and the wrong place at the wrong time. Appearing late enough in his life that I offered the joyous, no-strings-attached love of a little girl when such attention was in short supply, and in return I got the attention every small child craves from a parent. My late arrival also afforded me a front row seat to a mid-life bout with alcoholism whose confusion scattered our family in untold directions. I found myself adrift and distracted in the eye of the passive aggressive hurricane that characterized my parent’s marriage at that time, my allegiances shifting daily and instilling in me an unsettling certainty that there is no such thing as the whole truth.
His story ends well, with beloved grandchildren, an embrace of cooking, work and friends in the community, and a rekindled friendship with my mother. She liked to say that the first 15 and the last 10 years of their marriage were worth all that happened between. As it happens, what happened in between was my childhood. While I maintain that it was a happy one, I find myself sorting through it like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make the brightly colored, oddly shaped pieces fit.
The inequalities of parental love – or any love at all – are tough to reconcile, and because I have witnessed in other families the carnage that can result when people attempt to settle old scores, I find myself overly focused on fairness and communication with my own children, knowing full well I have no control over how they might view their lives, and my role in them, fifty years on. But what I carry with me is the sense that my parents, my family, have loved me the best they can, and that I should lift my head from the puzzle and work each day to return the favor.
Three times this week I have found myself regaling people with stories of 25+ years ago and having them draw a total blank on me. Do I have a great memory (selective, for sure) or am I making things up? No, no, I know the stories are there even if people who were present do not remember anything, and I’ve told these stories because I am looking to shed some light on the details only to have the subjects taken aback that I remember such things at all. We both come away a little unnerved, I think, but I am alternately blessed and tormented by the need to recall these stories and make them whole somehow. Most of them are sitting on my hard drive, waiting for the final nod which may or may not come.
This mining of the past is in fact a family trait – there are others whose memories are even more vivid and detailed than my own, which may explain the countless hours we spend around the dining table, swapping new stories and comparing versions of the ones we tell over and over and over. Favorite topics: funerals, weddings, movies, food and church, not necessarily in that order. It is the legacy of a big family.
Will this get me to write more – or less? At this moment, I think more. To butcher a famous phrase: better get busy remembering or get busy forgetting.