There are so many things I wish I’d shared from the garden this summer. In a summer garden, each day is its own painting, the colors and forms shifting as one bloom falls away and a new one takes its place, as new leaves and tendrils emerge overnight.
In early June, my hollyhocks were beautiful, splendid even - I had nearly every color I’ve ever wanted this year - - but the rain that helped them along was ultimately their downfall, too, as they developed such bad fungal rust that I just couldn’t keep them and by July I had torn them all out and replaced them with cosmos which I transplanted from the lower garden. And so the focus shifted from the towering hollyhocks to the more subtle and delicate sweetpeas and morning glories, winding their way up the teepee trellises. By mid summer, the sweetpeas were waning, and the snapdragons and zinnias and four-o-clocks were in their element, taking the heat in stride, and attracting swarms of pollinators and grasshoppers. Nettie spent hours watching striped caterpillars slowly inch along the dill stalks, determined to discover how they made their crysallis.
I take flowers to my grandma in the nursing home every week. The first bouquets of the season were small and humble, flowers that Nettie and I had to scrounge for, and could only fill a spice jar. They grew a little each week, and now, at the height of the zinnias, she receives a very large bunch, mixed with cosmos and snapdragons and great seedheads of fennel and fragrant white phlox.
“I used to raise lots of flowers,” she always says, vaguely. She can’t remember, anymore, exactly which flowers she raised. She often asks the names of each flower I’ve brought. I show her photos of my gardens, which she has never visited. “Ohhh, isn’t that pretty?” she says. She has Nettie get out the envelope of photographs she keeps in her nightstand. In a stack of photos that spans nearly 90 years, are a few over-exposed pictures of one of her gardens, perhaps from the ‘70s or ‘80s. I can recognize zinnias, and marigolds, and if I squint and use my imagination, four-o-clocks.
There is something that I’m trying to say, but can’t articulate, and so I keep hoping that if I bring all the pieces together, I will make the connection. It has to do with the garden, with flowers, with growing and sharing flowers, with the memory of flowers. It has to do with my grandmother. And with my mom, and my daughter. But also with my neighbor down the road, who doesn’t dare step out on her back steps, for fear of falling and having to be moved to a nursing home. She raised flowers, she gave me the German iris which grow along my fence, the same irises I can remember on the altar of my childhood church. I take her flowers every few weeks, and she, too, lightly touches the blooms and asks what some of them are, and I try to tell her in a voice that is loud enough for her to hear. And it has to do with my other grandma who has been gone for almost 15 years, and who I never really knew that well, who used to fuss over a few rose plants which seemed scraggly to me, and who once brought me a single pink rose bloom in a juice glass to the house where I lived as a newlywed, and I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Didn’t understand the joy that bloom had brought her, or that she had wanted to share that joy and beauty with me.
These are the pieces - I can feel what I want to say, what I want to communicate - but I can’t write it. All I can say is that the garden, the flowers, they link us, through time and place. They are part of a collective memory - of color, of scent, of the feel of a petal on our fingertips or pressed to our lips. Like a humming moth that lights and darts from one trumpet of the four-o-clock to the next, showing itself only in motion, in shadow - I can only gesture at what it all means, how it all fits. All I know is that there were flowers once, and I grew them - you grew them - she grew them - we all did, once.
In college, I took a poetry class. It was life-changing, in a way, because it was the first time I thought of myself as creative. It would be several years before I tried any visual art, but writing those poems opened up something for me. I realized I had stories to tell, and I’ve been trying to tell them ever since, though not so often in poetry, these days. This was the first poem I wrote for that class, our assignment was a sonnet. My sonnet is modified, with an added fifteenth line.
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered….. the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls….. bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” — Marcel Proust
First flower she learns to name, four o’clocks
form the border of her mother’s garden. Strange
blooms stay shut all day, finally unlock
funnel-shaped flowers as sun sinks low, change
erupting with dew in the grass. Sweetness sweeps
deep on cool breeze, flutters curtains, hovers heady,
draws from drowsy dishes hushed house half-asleep
mother and child, chattering into the blue night, giddy
trips to the garden where humming moths sink,
spin in nectar-kissed kinesis between rows.
Four o’clocks ogle the moon, gold and pink
blossoms-turned-blue that the child plucks, twirls, throws
away, silk corpses crushed underfoot. Spent
petals, perfume linger when they wake, glint
like memory of dreams, lost at the moment