To the untrained eye, it is simply a regular tree-dotted lawn with a rose arbor and flower-strewn islands mulched with finely-ground dark oak bark. What may appear as a simple floral bush, to a more sophisticated gardener as hydrangea, to me, is an heirloom. So who’s in your garden?
It’s hard to know exactly how many generations these hydrangea bushes represent. The ones in my yard came from my mother’s shrubs, which came from her mother’s shrubs, which likely came from her mother’s, and so on. My mother’s hydrangeas were always French blue, except in late autumn when they retained more green, but I never saw hers turn pink or purple.
I’ve been composting with the mornings’ leftover coffee dregs and grinds. This apparently changes the acidity in the soil, makes the blooms take on different shades. I like the subtleties of the tingeing. But I’m wondering if my grandmother would approve, if she’d expect me to keep the mopheads in their traditional sky hue. Or if it isn’t the coffee but her magic fairy wand slipping in with the dew and blushing them just for me.
Suddenly she is with me on the walk; my grandmother in her housedress with a snuff tin in her pocket along with a chewed twig from the sweet gum tree that she used as a dipping stick—or as I called them—toothbrushes. She knew how to dye Easter eggs from onion skins and flower petals, harvesting their colors naturally.
A little further along I notice the iris blooms have withered, as have the lilacs. However, their spikey leaves remain, and so does the memory of lifting them from our neighbor’s edging where they’d spread into our lawn.
Although no relation, I called her aunt. This was common in the south. Overweight, weak-kneed, with a slackened bladder, she used to wet herself while laughing, walking, or rising from a chair. She smoked Virginia Slims and More cigarettes, the latter I recall being long dark skinny tubes which rendered a skunky odor. Always dieting, though never losing weight, she drank Tab and ate windmill cookies, and cut diets from magazines. Most involved cottage cheese, pineapple, and eggs.
She fell asleep one evening after putting a pot of eggs on to boil. They boiled dry and exploded, sending dried yolk and whites all the way to the ceiling, leaving behind a sulfuric odor. I helped her clean it up by standing on a step stool. I never minded cleaning at her house. She cursed a lot, which made it fun.
Even if washing the collection of Made in Occupied Japan what-nots, her fine bone china, or polishing her silver, I enjoyed being there.
It had to be assembled each year from a box of silver tinsel branches which were threaded into a pocked-with-holes center pole. It was always a chore finding just the right one for each placement. Then the Victorian ornaments, worth the entire Christmas holiday, would be unearthed from the spare bedroom where her brother stayed when he was drying out from a drinking spell. That was the closet with the Pollyanna board game too.
It never occurred to me to find irony in these details. Things like the classically traditional blown glass teardrops and balls, painted with golden trim against Dickensian scenes, adorning a modernistic silver tree. What did seem like the most decadent thing in the world, was the fact the tree was too delicate for strands of lights and had to be lit with a round multicolored-glass floor lamp which rotated, spinning one color at a time onto the tree’s reflective surface.
Not the charred remains from the final time she forgot the egg pot, gutting the house, leaving behind another cavity in the earth.
There are two large round stones on my walk. I always pause by them, captured by the memory of what lies beneath, long gone to dust. Little bodies of beloved pets, the other shepherds we lived with and adored. I can’t stay there long or tears will fall. As I step away and onto something in the grass, a sweet aroma wafts through the air. Lemon balm? Mint?
Backing up, I spy a wild patch meandering through the bottom field. I know where both came from; the picket-fenced garden I copied once from Martha Stewart. A poodle tree—a juniper trimmed into three balls—centered the intricate sections of triangles and rectangles. Sweet pea, tomato, basil, pumpkin plants which never produced more than gourds, bell pepper, cucumber and lettuce, all braced against the pickets.
To plant gladiolas, raspberry bushes, lemon balm, and mint. Soon, it was a raspberry briar patch inside a mint tangle. My husband bulldozed the whole thing and planted grass. Sometimes, as now, a patch of the mint makes an appearance, its long running root system refusing to give up.
The peonies are still hanging on here and there. They’re from Mother’s cuttings too. Big round pink pompoms, heavy-headed, and always crawling with ants though I don’t know why.
The arbor is covered this year, red baby roses cascading all the way from the top arch, along both side fences. It’s spectacular, and forms a nice background for the single long-stemmed white, and the red Abraham Lincoln—the only actual name I remember, and yellow—is it named after Texas?
It’s from a cutting I took from the rose spray on my mother’s grave on the second day of the New Year in 2014. Her funeral was on New Year’s Day. Too bereaved to consider weather, I didn’t think about the impending freeze until the following morning when I awoke to the forecast and all I could think about was another death—that of the floral spray—as if it wasn’t already doomed to die.
I had to go right then, as early as it was, maybe not even eight o’clock. My husband drove me and I wore a huge wool coat and thick gloves. Peeling away a half-dozen roses, to save, to root, to try to see one more time, I was taken by the frosty grass crunching beneath my feet, the sod in broken segments like patchwork. It was as if her death took light, warmth, happiness from the world and left behind permafrost for our hearts as well as our eyes.
“I need soil,” I said.
“We have some at home,” my husband said. Sure enough, he gathered it from the basement along with six pots and a rooting hormone. Only one made it and now it’s in the earth within my vision line. Soon it too will bloom and bear witness to its reason for being in my garden. And there she’ll be, my mother, planted as surely along the walk as my grandmother, sweet neighbor, and a pair of shepherds.
Renee Canter Johnson is the author of Acquisition, The Haunting of William Gray, and Herald Angels. Behind the Mask is her fourth novel with The Wild Rose Press and highlights her three favorite things: storytelling, travel and foreign food. Renee has studied in France and Italy, and is a fellow at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and University of Iowa’s Novel Intensive Workshop. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and two very spoiled German shepherds named Hansel and Gretel.
Renee Johnson is a member of the North Carolina Writer’s Network, Romance Writers of America, Women’s National Book Association, and She Writes. Her essays have appeared in Bonjour Paris, Study Abroad, and Storyhouse. She maintains two blogs: writingfeemail.com for travel insights and reneejohnsonwrites.com which is focused on her writing journey.
“The fog, signora. It was very thick right before you fell into the canal. Most people do not take risks in Venice during such low visibility.” There was a suggestion of culpability in his words that even he heard as they escaped him. His rawness was affecting his ability to remain objective.
“Venice?” Surprise rose in her voice. “Venice, Italy?”
“Yes, signora, you are in Venice, Italy.”
She looked off to the right, cocked her head to one side, and winced. “What am I doing in Venice?”
From The Wild Rose Press:
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