I saw a picture recently of the azaleas blooming down where I used to live. So I called an old lady I know who still lives so far out in the middle of nowhere that the reception is spotty at best, and had her describe to me the fat, fuchsia-hearted saucer magnolia blossoms, how their waxy petals had begun to pile creamily and dreamily on the grass. There are redbuds and cherry blossoms, and bluebells and violets, she told me, and camellias on somebody’s corner, and her piney bushes—what she meant were peonies—are getting lush and eager to bud.
She talked about confident tulips and carpets of golden narcissus and shy little crocus, too, mentioned the bleeding hearts that she was certain she’d given away and was surprised to see blooming out front again, and the Dutchman’s breeches and the spring beauties, but then, she was never much of a flower gardener. She’s too practical for that. She likes vegetables and sturdy fruit trees. Peppers for pickling and beans for canning and jars of apple butter. She questioned the folly of growing fruit this season; who will come around to harvest it? Still, she cut the branches back, and now they are flowering.
You were once the best gardener in the family, and I still remember your last crop of June roses, buds that we cut and arranged in little sundae glasses so that you could smell them while you were sleeping. We watched the hummingbirds dip into the feeder, caught the hardy hibiscus blossoms turning hungrily toward the sun. There was no keeping track of time that spring, no thought at all for the turning world but sometimes, when you finally slept, going outside and watching the broad blooming moonflowers open their perfumed robes up to greet the stars.
Late in the season a little girl down the street wrote a poem in your honor, which was read to you at your bedside, and it was like a flower too. A thing that was waited on, a thing that bloomed. It’s still spring, and you are still alive, I remember thinking.
I remember well how eager I had been for the blooms of that spring, and how quickly all the color drained from the summer that had arrived just as you left it. Days bright with sunshine turned blinding; all the familiar nooks and crannies of home felt too loud and too cluttered. Suddenly every faded flake of wallpaper and every dusty knickknack was impossible to ignore. I wipe spice jars with a hot rag and savor the gratifying act of compulsive cleaning, enough distraction to quiet the mind, enough fatigue to render some sleep even when hyper-vigilance aims to prevail.
All this ugliness and uncertainty these days. How strange and selfish it feels to take hope in anything, but even so. I think a dozen times a day to pick up the phone and ask how you are. And then I find myself relieved you are not here to know about this. I think of the little girl who wrote you the poem and sent it, a little girl who has since grown up and moved away just like I did, and wonder if she knows that she is an unfading memory of the spring to me. A perfect burst of hopeful color, an Indian paintbrush bloom that never grows dry.
The old lady says the rhubarb has put up its shoots. I remember the day you and I waited for her to leave for church and then scaled her fence to pilfer some stalks from her plant. “We won’t take all of it,” you said, kneeling with the paring knife. “Just what we need.”