I have always loved flowers but never appreciated them to the extent I appreciate them now until I became a gardener in the spring of 1995, a few months after I bought my first little house.
I had just moved back to Arkansas from California, where I shared a house with a woman who hired people to landscape her yard, clean the house and tend the pool (I always secretly enjoyed cleaning the pool myself, but once a week a guy she paid would come and add chemicals and make sure the skimmer was working). Someone mowed, someone edged, someone pulled weeds – things I always hated doing when I was a teenager (except for the riding lawnmower – that part was fun. But my dad’s version of an edger, at least in those days, was a pair of garden shears. Oy!). And I was glad I didn’t have to do those things at the house I shared with my roommate.
So I never knew much about flowers except that they were pretty. I knew that my grandmother had a green thumb and my mother did not. I knew that my few attempts at planting seeds resulted in disappointments. Because the other thing I knew was that you couldn’t merely plant them and forget about them – at least with most flowers. I planted zinnias once when I was a little girl in California, and I have absolutely no memory that anything ever came up. Had I lived in Arkansas then, close to my grandmother, that little seed packet might have produced different results.
But, just like I wished in regard to quilting after Nanny died, I wished I had asked her for her gardening secrets and techniques (I have no doubt many of them would be different from what you see in books, on the Internet and on HGTV today). Or asked my dad about growing tomatoes, or how, when I would point to a tree of any kind, he could tell me exactly what it was.
So, in 1995, I began acquainting myself with gardening. I read and read, asked questions of other enthusiasts and paid attention when people talked about it. I learned quite a bit, although there is still much to learn.
And my appreciation for plant life has grown. I no longer appreciate a specimen merely for its beauty, but for its hardiness, its fragility, its complexity. I love the names of flowers, both the botanical and the common names. I love the colors, textures and varieties. I love the smell of dirt, the feel of it under my fingernails.
I love pulling weeds.
And over the years I have grown to love hydrangeas more and more. So when my mother sold the house I grew up in, after she could no longer bear to stay there after Dad died, I knew I wanted to take with me part of the hydrangea that grew in the front flower bed.
I had watched my dad spend countless hours taking our yard, in 1973, from a lumpy, scraggly, sloped lot to a lush, green, squirrel’s paradise. He landscaped, he planted and he watered. He established pine trees along the property lines and hung birdhouses. The first year we were there, he planted a large garden (he made my brother and me pick the large rocks out of the soil to prepare it, although J.T. threw more rocks at me than he did onto the pile!). When the weather was warm and he wasn’t at work, Dad was outside, enjoying God’s creation and tending to our little corner of it.
After I grew up and became a homeowner, Dad told me I should get a cutting of the hydrangea to plant at my own little house, after the heat of summer had passed. But I never got around to it.
So, after he died in December 1997 and Mom sold the house a few years later, she asked the new owners if we could take a hydrangea cutting with us. They said sure.
But it was April, and I wanted to wait until September or so. Then, after we got Mom settled in at her new little house and life got back to normal, the hydrangea plans got pushed aside by all the other clutter in my mind.
When I finally remembered, and drove back by the old house, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The hydrangea – this beautiful lush plant that had lasted so many years with so little tending – was gone.
Gone. Dug up. Chopped down.
(That last description is unfair, I know. The hydrangea – indeed, the land itself – didn’t mean the same to them as it meant to me. To them, it was just a flower. But how could such a beautiful flower be just a flower?)
So in 2002, when Dad’s brother Tom died, I got a second chance.
After the funeral, my aunt offered me one of the potted flowers that had been taken back to the house. I was so honored that she invited me to take one.
I chose the hydrangea.
I brought it home and planted it in the back yard, on the north side of the house, because my mom’s (or should I say Dad’s?) hydrangea was on the north side of our house, and it seemed to do fine even though no one ever seemed to tend it.
Each year with this new hydrangea, this one that seemed to rise out of the ashes of my disappointment, I have looked forward to its beautiful blossoms.
And every spring as I look at it, I think of Dad and Uncle Tom, who will never know how much their hydrangeas have meant to me.
For most of the year I would forget about the bush and be surprised when, one day without warning, it would stun me with its beauty. I haven’t deserved how well it has turned out; I have never tended the back flower bed like I have the front ones.
And I knew I had neglected it more than usual this past year. I had not pruned it, watered it – had barely noticed it – in the 15 months since Bruce started getting sick again. With three hospital stays between May and December, he has needed my tending more than my flower beds have. My roses have never looked worse, but my focus has been on my sweetheart, not on my flowers.
But this hydrangea has seemed to be a metaphor for never giving up, for persevering amid adversity.
A month ago I started looking at it with an anticipation that I hadn’t devoted to it in the past.
I noticed when the brown stems began to sprout tiny green leaves, then bigger leaves, then tiny buds. I even tried to take pictures of the blooms in their early stages, because I had lots of photos of the full blossoms but had none of them when they were still greenish white. (But my camera was acting up, and the photos didn’t turn out.)
I began getting excited for the day the blossoms would bloom out big, but I noticed and appreciated every little step along the way. I would say to the dogs in the stillness of daybreak, “It won’t be long, girls.”
It grew and grew.
And last night I went outside to stand in the back yard for a few minutes and enjoy the weather, which was finally cooling off for the day. I said to myself, “I surely should have pruned that thing back a little better last time. It’s really getting big and bushy.”
Later, when Bruce came to bed, I woke up to rain and lightning. I told him he probably should unplug the electronics, so he did. The storm wasn’t going to die down for a while.
And this morning at daybreak, when I let the dogs out, I saw my beloved hydrangea leaning over onto the ground.
Shaken, a bit stirred, fortunately not dead, but wounded nonetheless.
It was time for tough love. (As if that’s not what it already had received under my watch.)
I never have looked up “hydrangea care” on the Internet or in books. The “experts” may tell me that it’s the wrong time of year to be pruning a hydrangea, that you should never do it while it’s blooming or while the weather is this hot.
But I did it anyway. This afternoon I pruned it almost to the nub. It hurt to have to do it, but I’m just going to have to trust it to be strong and survive, as Bruce and I ourselves are trying to do this year.
All I have to go on is instinct.
And my instinct tells me I haven’t seen the last of this loyal friend.