Tag Archives: azaleas

The Backyard Beckons

Before I took a part-time job as an in-house writer at a local school, working in the garden was just that — working, one more chore to do. Of course, once I got started I enjoyed it: the rhythm of weeding, the cool tactile delight of patting seedlings into place, orchestrating window boxes into a symphony of pattern and color. But gardening was nevertheless one more chore to accomplish.

Working three days a week leaves precious little time for everything else I used to do in five. I was dreading adding gardening to spring’s list of things to do. But this afternoon’s spell in the garden was a little piece of heaven, backbreaking heaven, but heaven nonetheless. The azaleas are in bloom, clouds of crimson, orchid and pink. The ajuga has returned, purple spikes framing the azaleas with their zany spires. The dogwoods are in full blossom, pink as summer lipstick. The lilies of the valley are up in profusion, quiet little white bells nodding beneath a quill of green. Coty’s Muguet des Bois (what the French call lilies of the valley) was the first perfume I ever wore. I tucked a sprig behind one ear and spent much of the afternoon shadowed by my ten-year-old self.

One of the rhodies didn’t fare too well. The winter was mild but for whatever reason, a good third to a half of her leaves have been reduced to rust-colored curls. There are anemic flowers here and there. I’m not worried. This happens every few years. She dies down and comes back bigger and better. A good lesson to remember when a harsh season leaves me feeling wilted.

Moving from bed to bed I fed the azaleas. Some of them we planted more than twenty years ago; they are now close to five feet high and seven feet wide. A little touch of my Georgia childhood up here in Michigan, they thrill me with their brilliance every year. No matter how much snow we have, how endless and pervasive the grey skies, I know the azaleas are there waiting to reward me for making it through another winter.

There are the inevitable invaders: some “volunteers,” some mishaps of my own. I am still pulling up sprigs of saponaria, planted for its promise of a pink delicately scented ground cover. Pink, yes. Ground cover yes. Delicately scented, no way. One gardener’s perfume is another’s yuck.

Behind the azaleas, I brush earth from the memorial stone marking where we buried our dog’s ashes. “Beloved McKenzie” it reads. It’s been two years and still we miss her; miss her happy spirit, her bright eyes, her black nose. A garden holds so much: anticipation and creativity; devastation and bounty; renewal and wonder; God’s everpresence. And sometimes in a quiet corner, a garden also holds the perennial reminder of love given boundlessly and missed so very very much.

On Dogwoods and Daughters

I don’t know which is stranger: that my azaleas bloom in June or that the soil anchoring their shallow roots is black, rich, and humusy.Having spent my childhood years in Atlanta where flowering begins in March and the earth is red and rusty, I still find these small details jarring. Even after twenty five springs north of the Mason Dixon line I am still not accustomed to this. Transplanting is funny business.

Each spring I ache in a small place I can’t name. It’s not simply that slogging through March, April and a piece of May makes me long for a the landscape of my childhood. It’s the realization that my children and I do not share nature cues, those deeply embedded sensory memories thatevoke home once we’re grown and gone.For them, spring wafts in on crab apple breezes cool with morning. I snip lilac branches and put them into nightstand vases to scent their dreams. When they were little, they played “Catch the Helicopters” as maple seedlings spiraled to earth. Magnolia blossoms? Honeysuckle nectar?Fuggeddaboutit. Nature has imprinted my children with a different beauty, different cues for home.

I occasionally hear my kids slip in a “ya’ll” when calling out to their friends, but more often it’s “you guys.” Their A’s are flat as Redwing hockey ice. When they were toddlers, they’d say, “Daddy help me with my pajamas.” and I would cringe. “Daddy” squeezed from their vocal cords as “Deeaddy”. Ditto “p’jeeamas.”My children sometimes sound like strangers to me. Where are their drawls? I taught them to speak, but their ears have found other accents to mime.

How can I imbue my children with a sense of the South when we only visit once a year? Especially since we usually visit in December? The South means swinging with their aunt and uncle in the backyard hammock. It’s pine straw fights and hearing their grandpa say, “C’mere bubba, gimme some sugar.” It’s going coatless in winter and seeing velvety pansies planted by an intrepid gardener, but not camellias, not gardenias.

In his terrific memoir The Provincials, transplanted Southerner Eli Evans recounts his son’s birth in a New York University Hospital delivery room. In one hand he held his wife’s hand. In the other, a fistful of North Carolina soil, “scooped from the UNC campus…because the truth was I wanted my son to know his roots.”

Darn! I wish I’d thought of that. But UNC dirt or no, I’d lay a bet Evans’ son, born and bred in Manhattan, nevertheless stands on line not in line. It’s hard this passing on the sense of place. We can do the big stuff. Religion. Ethics. And I suppose that’s more important. But it’s the little things that make us who we are. That root us in place.

Yet I have hope. By sheer luck and the yearning of the Southerner who owned our house before us, two dogwoods bloom outside my daughter’s bedroom window: one pink, one white. Over the decade and a half we have lived in this house we’ve watched them grow until they are nearly as high as the attic. Each spring those dogwoods are the first thing my daughter sees upon awakening and the last thing she sees before dreaming. My husband and I once toyed with moving to another neighborhood. “We can’t!” Emma wailed. “What about my dogwoods? I wait for them every spring.”

My daughter, who adores snow, whose accent holds no trace of Georgia red clay, who has never bitten off the green bulb end of a honey suckle flower to drink a drop of its sweet nectar, nevertheless waits for the dogwoods to bloom.It matters little that her inner clock has patience for June while her mother’s is ready in March. Emma waits for dogwoods. That is enough for me.

Long ago I promised myself that if she were to settle somewhere in the North and bless me with a granddaughter, I’d plant a dogwood outside the infant’s window.And should my daughter settle in a land alien to us both, somewhere like Montana or Washington state, I imagine we’ll both be out in the garden — I with a dogwood, and she with a lilac, rooting into the earth not just flowering trees for springtime delight, but the essence of our childhoods as well.

Emma is no longer at home when the dogwoods outside her window bloom. So I call and tell her when her blossoms unfurl, each one a four-petaled reminder of earlier days.