Published in The Keene Sentinel, June 10, 1998
In the old days, if you made a braided rug, you could look into it and see the discarded blankets and outgrown coats of your family’s history. I had a pair of blue jeans like that once. A snippet of my little sister’s Easter dress was on my right knee, a bit of a misshapen home-ec project was on my left knee, and I sat on a whole lineage of skirts and blouses and pants.
Which brings me to my flower garden. My flower garden is a living quilt pieced together from gardens all over town.
Annie Caswell got me started on flower gardening. I never met her. Many years ago, Annie Caswell lived in an unpainted farmhouse at the Harrisville end of the Tolman Pond Road. Her meanness was legendary. One story goes that some branches had fallen off a tree and were lying in the ditch next to her house. Her neighbor, a poor man with many hungry children, asked her if he could have them as firewood. No, she said, they’re mine. “But Annie,” he protected, “they’ll rot!” Her response: “And they’ll rot mine.”
She must have saved what little softness she had in her life for her flowers. In the decades since her death, her flowers had become more spectacular every year. When her house fell down, leaving only a cellar hole, I knew the place mostly as the best secret raspberry patch in town, but when a developer bought the property, planning a subdivision, I realized the new road was to go right through her foxglove, star-of-Bethlehem, valerian, blue eyed grass, four colors of columbine, day lilies, lily-of-the-valley, purple flags, johnny-jump-ups, bluebells and phlox. Before her flower garden disappeared forever under the asphalt, I stole it, one spadeful at a time.
My mother told me about the beautiful yellow roses Annie Caswell raised. I went over to the cellar hole to look for them, but all that seemed to grow among the chimney bricks and rusted pots were blackberry brambles. I realized I was standing on the front stoop of her house, a granite block softened and scooped out with use. The 20th century fell away and I could feel her house behind, feel life a hundred years ago, and just for a second feel what flowers in the spring would mean to someone who had struggled along through a winter without electricity or car or company. When the moment passed I looked down and realized I had my hand on her yellow rosebush.
After Annie Caswell’s contribution, gardening was mainly a matter of filling in the empty spaces. A deep purple lilac given to my grandmother by her friend Mildred Quigley still blooms in front of my house. Mildred’s house in Nelson village is gone, her lilac hedge is gone, but in the late afternoon when the sun slants in sideways, her purple torches look lit from within.
When a friend of mine sold her house in Munsonville, she wanted to give me some of her favorite plants so that she could come back and visit them. This year, her bleeding heart has attained a wingspan of about six feet.
My great-grandmother’s mallow is in front of the house. Unfortunately, I brought something called wild caraway in with it, which like a scruffy guerrilla army seemed determined to occupy the whole garden, but then it encounters the redoubtable comfrey, which isn’t ceding any ground.
There are also several volunteers who have shown up without family connections. Forget-me-nots appeared one year, and stayed. Jack-in-the-pulpits hide under the delphinium. One year a mullein grew under my bedroom window. By June it was four feet tall and I had to decide whether my window, which swings out, was going to remain open for the whole summer or closed for the whole summer. (I left it open.) By the time the frost came and turned it black, the mullein had grown to over eight feet tall.
I found cranes bill, a form of wild geranium, languishing under a wheelbarrow behind my neighbor Sidney F. Partridge’s garage. I gently liberated them. Sidney Partridge, who died about five years ago, was a veteran of World War I, the tax collector of Nelson for over 30 years, and a terror on the over-90 tennis circuit. In my flower garden Sid’s cranes bill, Mildred’s lilac and Annie Caswell’s purple flags grow together very convivially, along with their old neighbors, in a kind of botanical Old Home Day.