In the Language of Flowers my grandmother would have been a cactus. If dour sprung from a turnip or burdock represented intractable, then her nosegay would have been composed of a prickly pear, a purple top and dock. Or, this is what I thought for a time, for a season, or two.
The rain tracked westward dragging in its wake a breeze spiced with resin. Sitting in lawn chairs rendered shabby chic by hot sun and one too many tropical storms, my mother and I swatted at yellow flies. Slash pines sketched the ground in Whoville shadows, bruising our faces in their retreat from the silvered hide of my Grandmother’s Airstream trailer at our backs.
Clamoring for our attention, orange and yellow marigolds screamed at each other across a stage of root-muscled earth. Pink and purple Petunias pranced like kindergarten ballerinas against a curtain of saucy Caladiums while fiery Zinnias, red-hot pokers and bloody cockscombs cackled their bawdy jokes from the wings. A lone pink waved from a crack in the cement slab beneath our feet.
Two dogs, out for a day of socializing, trotted toward a triple row of black-eyed Susans hedging the show. As if finding the dare , they checked at the corner, looked toward the trailer and launching themselves over the Rudbeckia set off at a dead run; just beyond good rock-chucking distance. Sailing across to the other side, they skidded to a stop, glanced back, moved on, another afternoon meander.
It was a Sunday. Prayers were winding down for my grandmother at the church across the field.
I inhaled the soft southern air and, tilting my head toward a bucket of morning glories sprawling at my feet, asked, “Mom, where in the world did all this spring from?”
Beneath her dun-colored bonnets my grandmother looked out upon a world sorely in need of a good shaking. In her presence I slunk; we all did, hunkering down out of her sight line. Granny loomed to Biblical proportions in a body barely five feet tall.
In her yard pine needles fell with an apology. If she’d felled everything within her domain and dared it to re-sprout, no one would have been surprised. And, yet, here we were ankle-deep in flowers.
“Did Granny have a garden? When you were a little girl?”
My mother looked over at me. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Squinted. Sought an answer in the tall pines. Dropping her eyes to her hands, she began to worry at a honeysuckle stem.
“You know, it was on the tip of my tongue to say all my Mama ever gardened was cotton, peanuts and Dominecker hens. But…” She hesitated, sifting through memories. A car door slammed over at the church across the field.
“I remember the house yard. Had a wire fence around it. Mama used to sweep it with a gallberry broom, punishing it down to bare clay. By the time she passed the broom on to me, the ground next to the fence rose up a good 18 inches higher than the middle; kind of like a dirt farmer’s version of a HaHa.” My mother dropped the stem and popped off a bloom, held it to her nose.
Memory picking, my Mother sorted, discarded. She looked at me. Slowly, light like an Easter sunrise flushed her face, and she began. “But out back, between the smokehouse and the clothesline, there was an old syrup kettle she used to boil our clothes in on wash day. I remember sitting on the edge of it with Jessie picking a bouquet from the flowers planted inside. Four O’Clocks?” She shook her head as if to rattle free their identity.
“Anyway, around the outside of the kettle was a circle of more flowers. Reds and purples, pinks. And then around that Mama’d laid out these bricks.
“And there was a fig tree. We’d play like the leaves were our dinner plates. And Jessie, just a little bitty girl, would scramble up to the top to pick the biggest, prettiest ones. Sometimes we’d lie under it with a leaf laying over our faces, our arms folded over our chests.” I watched a dove shuffle among the pine needles, heard another car door slam over at the church.
“There was a rose, too, climbing over the smokehouse, so burdened down it looked like it might buckle at the knees. The flowers were yellow, like sunshine. Mama called it her ‘Lady’. And another rose looked like a ball gown. Blooms always reminded me of that verse. You know. ‘Of cabbages and kings’”. My mother’s voice was a whisper now.
“There was a bush at one end of the clothesline. She kept it pruned so it looked like a giant toadstool. The line pole shot straight up out of the middle. Mama said it was a tea shrub. The clothesline seemed always full of dungarees, socks, dresses and the like, but the sheets she spread over her tea shrub.” My mother, she’s eight years old, again, lying beneath a fig tree. Her mother sails a sheet into the wind, flicks, holds tight, wins the tug-of-war. It settles to dry atop a mound of green.
“We saw it bloom once, me and Jessie. One flower. Blood red. We didn’t say a word, not even to each other; afraid Mama’d be out there with the cutters. But, come wash day she just tucked the sheets up around that flower, like a blanket around a baby.”
A hawk’s cry jarred the silence. Mom tracked its flight across the sky, her gaze tangling high in the pines. From the church I could hear the sound of a car crunching across gravel, voices.
“On the day Jessie fell I couldn’t find Mama at first. Finally come across her kneeling next to the clothesline. I’d run all the way from school and I couldn’t catch my breath to tell her. Joe come up behind me said ‘Jessie’s hurt.’ One minute Mama was there, the next I was standing all alone staring at a bucket full of wood’s dirt. A coffee can lay next to it with this little bitty vine spilling out, roots all naked and the sun baking down. I set it back in the can, pushed some dirt around it. I still remember the smell, earth and roses and smoky ham.
“Jessie died on a Sunday.”
Memories ended as the ring of bells and the heat from the sun cut through the pines. Noon. We both looked over at the church. I saw my grandmother, a metaphor for the live oak that humanizes so much of our deep south – limbs gnarled, stooped toward the ground by a lifetime of troubles; the Spanish moss swinging from its branches a color match for her thinning hair. She started across the field stepping high, and I thought of the resurrection fern that inhabits the nooks and crannies of the live oak. As she plowed through the fennel weed, lingering rain darkened the hem of her Sunday best.
The following January, weary from her ninety-eight years and another winter, my grandmother left her garden for an eternal spring.
My sister parked out front under a Chinaberry tree. The two of us climbed out of the car, followed by my daughter, Kim. We waited. My mother needed a little time. The house where she grew up, where her little sister died, where a little garden grew out back between a clothesline and a smokehouse, still stood on the land my uncle bought with the ashes of his conscience. But the house had become a kudzu-shrouded shell, rusting tin curling gap-toothed to the sky.
Listening for squeaks of surrender, we picked our way across the front porch boards. Inside, a well of gloom haunted us across the floor. Bricks had tumbled from the fireplace, scattering the smell of soot and sorrow. Cobwebs swung from the rafters.
Accompanied by muffled scurrying, we shuffled across shifting beams and stepped off the back porch to a flurry of crows. Thirty feet to the south lay a jumble of old poplar boards rendered in hickory smoke and brine. Across an echo of purples and pinks, bouquets and laughter, a wizened crone of a fig tree threw up lichened branches to grip a post, axed by rot. From the half-dozen leaves still clinging to a stem, I recognized Granny’s tea tree – a Camellia sasanqua, variety known only to the past.
Thirty years since my grandmother left us, and I wonder in this fickle spring if in an Alabama field a Camellia still lives in a fig tree’s embrace.
There are gardens open to us of such a strong sense of place, they connect us, not only to our pasts, but to who we are now:
Gibbs Gardens – Ball Ground, Georgia http://www.gibbsgardens.com
Chanticleer Garden – Wayne, Pennsylvania http://www.chanticleergarden.org
Cheekwood Estate and Gardens – Nashville, Tennessee http://www.cheekwood.org
Winterthur – Winterthur, Delaware http://www.winterthur.org
And books that tell us of the elements in the making of such a garden:
The Gardens of Arne Maynard and Gardens with Atmosphere by Arne Maynard
Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City by Dan Pearson
The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift