WE HAVE FOUND neutral ground, my sister and I. After three and a half decades, there is at last a place for us to be at peace, a new mother tongue that does not have so many angry phrases. We talk not of what has been, or might have been had someone or the other done something differently. We speak the language of flowers instead.
“I have an urgent garden question” is how her phone calls begin these days, and with those words we start rewriting the story of big sister-little sister, a tale that did not go so well the first time around.
No matter that she doesn’t always listen—she stored the dormant pot of calla lilies under the kitchen radiator, not exactly where I recommended, but they bloomed just swell the next year, anyhow. Her “urgent” questions are the opening lines of our revised first chapter of growing up together, and for that reason, I am grateful, and not so picky about such details.
When we were little, and the grandma she is named for grew them, my little sister crinkled her freckled nose and objected loudly to the stink of marigolds. Their gaudy color shone—positively gleamed—as if Grandma had planted them exactly to match the child’s orange hair. Young Marion was more inclined to horseplay than horticulture, however, her knees skinned and trousers shredded not from bending to the task of weeding but some far more hellish undertaking decidedly lacking in adult supervision. No time to stop and smell the flowers when you are playing cowboys.
Though not her namesake—perhaps they should have called me Lily, as hard as I tried to be demure—I never declined a chance to sit by Grandma Marion while she dried flowers from her garden in an old wooden press. From the lifeless bits she composed intricate arrangements that she later framed.
“Pressed-flower pictures,” we called them, proudly, but I remember that it was my room, not Marion’s, whose walls were covered in them. When she was not growing or pressing flowers, Grandma was painting pictures of them: a giant green ceramic vase of lilacs, a bowl of pansies, perhaps — and yes, of course, her precious marigolds.
Later, when Grandma was gone and growing pains were being felt full force at my end of the hallway, Marion was the sister who got bouquets from those who wished for her attention. Even then, Marion loved a rose—preferably long-stemmed and by the dozen—but I never actually thought that she would grow one. Apparently, I had something to learn about my sister, and about humility.
“Are those roses you gave me ramblers?” she asked not long ago, because they had clambered up and over this and that as rambler roses do. “You know, the ones you said were dead?”
The plants in question had arrived in time for an unseasonably early bout of high heat. Because I was not home, they had sat in their package in the sun, right where the UPS man left them. They stayed that way for days. Attempting a rescue on my return, I soaked them awhile in a bucket of water, and cut the cooked parts back, but they were too far gone to my impatient eye to bother with.
“I’ll take them,” said Marion, seeing the “dead” creatures lying on the lawn one day when she visited, and so she did. Within what seemed like no time, the dead plants had undergone a resurrection, and then proceeded quickly to ascend, too. By summer’s end, they were well up a trellis, where an enthusiastic tangle of vines—probably previous years’ casualties from my own garden—already grew lustily, as if to get back at me for my rejection.
THERE IS a certain hazard to passing on your outcasts, whether to family or to friend. You may very likely have to face the plants again; do not forget this fact. Some, sent away because they were so aggressive, will quickly overtake their new home as they did your place. This does little to enhance the sense that the spirit of generosity was behind your gift.
Other plants were banished because their color proved too jarring; no spot for them could be found, no matter how hard you tried, so out they went, too. Such was the case with a dozen peach- and melon-colored daylilies, and I was glad to see them go.
I was not quite so glad to see them as a focal point at Marion’s, where somehow, magically, they fit right in as if custom-ordered for the spot.
It is not all having to grit teeth, of course, not all a test of one’s semi-good humor. I admit to an intense pleasure when she comes to pick my apples in fall, knowing I will hear about the pies and sauce for months to come. The image of them on her table is a good one, as if the act of sharing a harvest is deeply knit into the gardener’s soul. The summer I planted three-dozen tomato seedlings, her own crop was lost to some animal invasion. No matter, between us there was plenty. Fruits heal all wounds, even those as old as childhood.
For now, the phone keeps ringing with the questions, although I suspect she doesn’t really need the answers any more, and could even give a few herself. Admittedly, I will not try storing my callas inside the radiator cover, but there is a certain red poppy in her garden I’d like them name of, or better yet, some of its seeds.
We are actually beginning to look more alike as a consequence of this shared passion. They say that family traits are often revealed as the years go by, but that’s not it. In our case it is the matching scratches on the insides of our forearms I refer to, the marks of rose thorns, or the ankle-encircling scars from wasp nests run over with the mower. It is the red half-circles behind each neck where the sun found its way in to sear our skin. Even our gardens have taken on a certain similarity: she, too, plants pumpkins in her flower beds, as if this idiosyncrasy were a familial trait.
There is more to this gardening stuff than planting, I guess, more than the books offer in step-by-step detail. No wonder, then, that the language of gardening and the language of life have so many words in common: words like tend and cultivate, words like grow.—copyright Margaret Roach, 1989 (first published in “Newsday” newspaper)
My sister, Marion Roach Smith, a longtime teacher of memoir writing and author of many books, including “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life,” blogs at Marion Roach [dot] com.