It is with some astonishment that I find myself, in my late middle years, a gardener. I am daughter, sister, and friend to avid and gifted gardeners, but had assumed I missed out on that particular aptitude. As a child, when given the choice of chores, I always chose doing the ironing over weeding the flower gardens Mom loved or the vegetable garden that fed our family of seven. It wasn’t that I enjoyed ironing. Does anyone? I simply loathed worms and snakes, and didn’t want to chance any encounters. If you must analyze, I prefer the Jungian to the Freudian interpretation of my mini-phobia.
But over the years, I grew to love flowers, and now it’s one of my rituals to plant my Southern gardens before I leave in the spring to return to my Northern home. It’s an act of optimism, as my wife, for all her sterling qualities, is not a gardener. We have a clear division of labour in our family. She tends to the lawn; I care for the gardens. Although she humours me by occasionally watering and weeding in my absence, I never know when I return in the fall what will have befallen my tiny gardens. Many years my beds are barren, the flowers unable to survive the drought and heat of an Atlanta summer.
Last year, I threw wildflower seeds amongst my euphorbia as an experiment. I returned in the fall to find Nature had run amok. Atlanta had an unusually rainy summer, which, along with the customary heat, had turned my once tame and prosaic euphorbia bed into a riot of flora, including one bright orange cosmos that towered over everything at ten feet tall. It leaned so far over the front path that we had to push it aside to walk past. My wife tried to prop up some of the plants which grew far past their ability to support themselves, but it became a garden that would’ve done Sleeping Beauty’s castle proud.
This spring as I planted my gardens, I came across a ten-inch metal and ceramic transistor coil. My wife had put it next to a metal rose I’d given her many years earlier. I know what the coil represents to her. It’s a bittersweet story, so Southern Gothic that I would be accused of over-the-top melodramatics if I used it as a plot line. The coil was given to my wife by one of her elderly clients, Mary. Mary’s late husband, Charlie, had made a successful career out of selling those coils, and he’d given Mary several to use as ornaments in her own beloved gardens.
Mary and Charlie were married for sixty years. Their daughter died in her early twenties in a tornado, and their son had established a good life with his family in a town northwest of Atlanta. When Charlie passed away early in 2013 after being wheelchair bound for several years, Mary was devastated. But at a spry ninety years old, despite recovering from breast cancer surgery, she continued to live in their family home, gardening, driving, and even getting up on the roof to clear pine needles.
A few months after Charlie’s death, Mary’s son convinced her to move to the town where he lived, so he could look after her more easily. Mary had already signed over power of attorney to her son in the wake of her husband’s death, so she reluctantly agreed. It was her assumption that with a depressed real estate market it would take at least a year to sell her home. To her surprise, the house sold in a matter of weeks, and before she could turn around, a professional company came in and organized a yard sale. Most of Mary’s possessions were sold, and very soon she was living in her new home, a residence for the elderly in her son’s town. The room was very small, so the only mementos she was allowed to take were a few pictures, and a knitted cap that had belonged to Charlie. The day before she moved, she gave my wife two large rocks she and Charlie had brought home from Lake Louise in Canada, and the transistor coil.
I don’t know what history lay between Mary and her son, but because of my wife’s friendship with Mary, I did have a front row seat to the rest of her life. We made several trips to visit her after she moved last fall, and I’ve never witnessed a woman in such psychological pain. She hated the residence and wept continually. She begged her son, via letters and phone messages, to let her return to the city and the neighbourhood she loved. She made rash statements born from the depths of her despair which he used to limit her movements and activities. The son took control of her sizeable estate and dispensed a pittance of an allowance twice a month. Worst of all, the more upset she became and the more she flailed for some semblance of control over her own affairs, the more he absented himself from her life.
As the months passed, some of the restrictions on Mary were lifted. We were able to take her out for lunch, walks, and car rides. She delighted in taking us to meals in the dining room at the residence, and introducing us to friends and staff. Because she had to watch as other residents were picked up by loved ones for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and ordinary weekend excursions, having friends to show off gave her comfort. See this; someone cares enough to drive up all the way from Atlanta to visit me. The last time we were with her, the day was quite rainy and the driving somewhat treacherous, so on arriving we found Mary in her room, crying, because she was so certain that we would not come.
The night of the February ice storm throughout Georgia, Mary was found on the floor of her room, in great pain but still conscious. She was taken to the hospital, but within days she went Home to join her beloved Charlie and their daughter.
Both the rose and the coil represent love, the former from me for my wife; the latter from Charlie for his wife. My love and I met too late in life to realistically aspire to the sixty years of marriage that Charlie and Mary enjoyed. But when I see that coil, I don’t dwell on the sad way Mary’s life ended. I think of the devotion between two people who’d spent a lifetime at one another’s side. Wherever they are now, the gardens in which they walk are much grander than the ones I planted last week. But as I watered my flowers and saw the coil, I honoured their memory. My gardens are modest. They may not last the summer, or they may take over half the yard. It really doesn’t matter. The ever-blooming rose and the coil represent what really matters.