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A Flower for All Occasions |
The lily, a flower for both matrimony and death, evokes sentimental memories for Faro but terrifies his young niece. | By R.E. Faro

What is that? Why it’s the sun, wan as a shut-in, shuffling through the morning fog, but warm in spite of that, and welcome on my face and arms. I feel almost like a shut-in myself. Winter and most of spring I have spent mainly indoors, kept there by the rains and by an irresistible impulse to . . . what was it again? Oh, yes, procrastinate.

Naturally, things are out of hand in the garden. The fruit trees have not been pruned, the fuchsias are gawky, and the onion hordes procreate like Genghis Khan. Everywhere I look Big Fat Weeds taunt me but, uncharacteristically, I’m not feeling harassed, nor as if I’m chasing after the train. Since Flora took over the front garden I feel as if I’ve inherited a wad of time that I can squander at whim.

“ Over there,” Maria, Flora’s nearly three-year-old niece, commands from her perch on my shoulders. When I started out the back door moments ago she, to my surprise, came running after me. “Carry me,” she insisted and so I hoisted her up. Never before has she let me hold her. It has become a joke how I have vainly tried to win her affections since my arrival in her world.

And her world it is. No sooner elevated she began to direct our tour of the garden. So far I have been all-compliant, no complaint, in my ox-like way. Deep down, I suspect that rather than finding me suddenly worthy, she is merely reluctant to put her little fuchsia maryjanes on the muddy Earth. She is already an exemplar of fastidiousness.

The “there” she directed me toward is a stand of violet-blue echiums that vibrate with color. Every spring certain plants do a star turn and this spring the blues sing. The ceanothus around town has never looked better. And every spring there are mysteries, that glossy word for intractable ignorance. The Daphne odora managed exactly two blossoms, unlike last year when it bloomed profusely, and so three weeks of that delicious smell was edited from the Book of Days. Why? The daphne is clearly healthy, acquiring girth like someone at an all-you-can-eatery, something not entirely welcome in its modest niche below the persimmon. I nonetheless thought it was my fault, until I learned that nobody else’s daphne bloomed either.

Guilt always looms offstage because the longer I garden, the more I test the limits of what I can get away with not doing. I haven’t sprayed the fruit trees with dormant spray for at least ten years with no dire consequences. I take for granted a long-standing détente with nature that is stable, if not static. I expect the fruits of it to last as long as I hold up my side of the bargain. Not much is asked of me: basic pruning, fertilizing, and weeding, none of which I have done but which I will, certainly . . .

Procrastination is the key/ I do it extraordinarily/ Drop your pen, count to ten/ Care to join me for some tea?
— Sonja Rogneby, at age 8

. . . but not yet. The soil is still too soggy, the clay in low-lying places super-saturated.

“ Go,” Maria says itching to move on after giving a brief and tentative stroking to a blooming stalk, a dubious pleasure from the look on her face. She points in the direction of the apricot tree whose spent blossoms are scattered like confetti at its base. Last summer it was overladen with fruit, and I’m curious to see if it might be setting fruit in similar profusion, so I follow orders.

When we reach a landing in the stairs leading toward the tree, I lower Maria toward the ground in order to yank a two-foot eruption of bunchgrass. Before her feet touch down, she retracts her legs and clings tighter, evidence that it is the mud and not my redeemed character that motivates our new connection. Well, you have to start somewhere. Once on the ground she stands still as a figurine and waits with regal forbearance for me to finish. The surgical strike against the bunchgrass gives me a little thrill. I picture how I might miss weeding if there were no weeds, whereupon the villainous onions, oxalis, Bermuda grass, and spurge around me come into focus, blitzing that illusion. If there were no weeds . . . ha!

Before I can determine much about the apricot’s fertility, Maria is pointing elsewhere, in the direction of the compost pile. She apparently finds the journey more compelling than the destination. Going that direction is backtracking, and the compost pile is not a destination this ox had in mind. I turn the other way, feeling Maria stiffen with resistance as we pass through the gate and descend into the front garden.

We are now in Flora’s domain, a tableau of muddy reconstruction. The holes where she removed the boxwoods ten weeks ago are still gaping and raw. I have learned since we’ve been cohabiting that she, too, is susceptible to the blandishments of procrastination. This does not displease me. For two decades I have muddled and made something middling of the front garden. I wish Flora success, but I don’t want it to happen in weeks, and I don’t want it to be too easy, though I would never say that aloud. I am starting to see how this thistle of competitiveness is just another Big Fat Weed that makes us both prickly. (What if there were no weeds in my psyche? Would I miss them?) Renovating the front won’t be easy, of course, what with the clay, the foraging deer, and the seasonal swamp on one side of the stairway.

Out of this glistening swamp a colony of calla lilies erupts skyward. An uncommon “common” name of Zantedeschia aethiopica is “pig lily,” and you see why. The leaves and stalks are slick and practically snorting with vigor, wallowing in the muck. They are nothing but BFWs, impossible to eradicate completely, but I’ve made my peace with them. To neutralize scorn, I imagine their cachet in less laid-back climates.

Maria, fidgety since we came through the gate, suddenly grips so tightly onto my neck she is peeling off skin. She starts howling and flailing, apparently intending to launch herself into the apple tree. I backtrack quickly, checking to see if there is an animal nearby: a possum or tree rat or snake.

No animal is visible. Could it be the sight of so much horrid mud? No, it appears that the callas themselves terrify her. To prove they’re harmless, I put her on the sidewalk at a safe distance, and return to stand near the clump, and while I’m there, give vertical yanks to decapitate the spent blossoms. This serves to ratchet her histrionics to a new pitch.

“ What’s happening down there?” Flora calls from the front porch.“ Total freak-out,” I yell back.
Flora hurries down the step and opens her arms as Maria leaps into her embrace. The wailing subsides.
“ Oh, what did this wicked man do to you,” Flora coos.
“ She’s scared of the callas,” I say.
“ Well so am I. They look like they could eat you alive. Poor baby. Let’s go back in the house.”

The look I give Flora, half aggrieved and half bewildered, gets a responding, over-the-shoulder wink as the two of them climb the stairs.

I stand staring at the callas, their tongues sticking out. The hastate leaves might seem somewhat sinister, though in the upper garden we passed by a black taro, also an arum with similar, even bigger and blacker leaves, and it did not cause a stir. The flower?

“ Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died,” as Katherine Hepburn famously uttered in Stage Door. It is a strange flower that is associated with both weddings and funerals. At my sister’s wedding there were two huge vases of white ones trumpeting tidings on both sides of the altar, and orange and yellow miniatures in the attendants’ bouquets. At Aunt Dot’s memorial service a solitary white one furled like a soul waiting rebirth stood in a bud vase on the mantelpiece. Nearby were a flickering votive candle and a Gerber baby cereal box, inside of which were Aunt Dot’s ashes; her idea of a good joke.

Flora came home one recent afternoon from the nursery with her van full of a rusty orange variety called ‘Flame’ that is nearly as tall as the ordinary white ones. I was dazzled, first thinking she was going to plant them in my . . . her . . . our . . . garden, but they were destined for urns in one of her Piedmont estates. I was half disappointed, half relieved. A couple of times I have tried to grow the colored ones with no success. The second spring after interment they managed a few lethargic leaves, and the spring after that, nothing. I accepted their demise stoically. Some things are too beautiful to possess, except, I suppose, in Piedmont.

Freud wrote about the psychosexual symbolism of the calla, and many contemporary 20th-century artists portrayed callas. Georgia O’Keeffe painted so many she was nicknamed “Lady of the Lilies,” though she resented the sexual inferences made by critics. On the other hand, I doubt that Robert Mapplethorpe would have minded dirty thoughts aroused by his photograph of a calla, which, ironically, is supremely cool and chaste. Perhaps the most reproduced callas are Diego Rivera’s blossoms—those in the basket set before a naked woman whose back is facing the viewer and whose outstretched arms encircle the white bouquet.

Maria’s obviously too young for prior references, so it makes me reconsider the possibility of reincarnation. How do our little selves get programmed? Could it be that in some past life she ingested some part of a calla with disastrous effects? Both the leaves and the root contain a toxic amount of calcium oxalate; enough to make your tongue and throat swell and, in extreme cases, block the passage of air.

My beliefs around reincarnation don’t seem to have much practical bearing one way or another, though I suppose it might be a relief to unload some of my compulsions onto the hunched back of Karma. I know there are numerous former Queen Hatshepsuts running around getting solace and prestige from their royal lineage. Maria would be a good candidate. My choice of an afterlife, were I to have one, is limbo. Is it still an option? How cozy to be lounging with the happy pagans in green (thistle-less) pastures in an infinitely idle idyll.

Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan . . . . Remarkably, we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you . . . . It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will forever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.”
— Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

I make my way back up the stairs, back to “my” garden. There is one more little visitation I want to make, which could involve some actual gardening.

In Aunt Dot’s day there were three blueberry bushes, two of which produced reliably well, and still do. Her favorite fruit, she said, which was saying a lot. “You can’t grow these in Kansas.” At her memorial service her friends and I emptied the contents of the baby cereal box into holes dug near her three plants, and planted six more. Though two of those are also perennially skimpy, that leaves six to provide the annual harvest, which, by the looks of things, will once again be bountiful. Clusters of fruit are forming on every bush.

I retrieve a box of acid food from the storage shed and spread the contents around the bushes. My mouth is already salivating at the thought of the harvest many weeks hence. If I had a handful of berries now, I might even try again to win Maria’s favor. It is a little weird to think the blueberries are nourished by Aunt Dot’s bones, but no weirder than most things. No weirder than Maria’s fastidiousness or her aversion to callas. The connections are always there, even if we don’t know how to read them.
For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly, delighting, and occasionally informing, our readers. We are proud to announce that this summer they will appear as a collection published by Ithuriel’s Spear Press. More details to follow. To read previous columns or to contact R.E. Faro, visit his Web site,

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