The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Stimulating Effects

Stimulating Effects

The gardener revitalizes his Aunt Dot’s legacy and muses on what should be repaired.

They were sitting near the nursery entrance to seduce the eye and loosen the wallet. Each four-inch pot sported a fat tag to reassure the uncertain customer that here (picture provided) was a viola. Culture specifics were included, information that no one, neither the dimmest nor the dottiest, would read. The seductive power of these clones was near negligible, barely a tickle on the thrillometer, but I bought 12, six for each of the two pots flanking the back door of my house.

I strewed untruths through the spring-addled town as I drove my purchases home. I would recycle the plastic (not a lie, but chances were nil that plastic this low-grade would go anywhere but the landfill). I was doing my consumerist duty, pulling out my credit card to pull the nation out of its distress. I was on track for creating a triumph. Each rationalization was run to the ground before I made it home, but there was still this to clutch: I wouldn’t do it again. No more stupid little color effects.

Yet, once planted, the violas did look charming in the Egyptian blue pots with the vaguely hieroglyphic markings that Aunt Dot loved so much. Their modesty worked in advantageous apposition to the pair of Purple Sensation cordylines already there. This marriage had everything going for it—balance, attraction, cash. Signing the credit slip was stimulating, but not in the most pleasurable ways, though now a part of me was pleased with the transaction. Here I was, the beneficiary of someone’s years spent in a germ-free lab while I was puttering in my garden. I got a deal.

One nag remained in the herd: perfection was imperfectly appreciated on the back deck. Only Cindy, the deaf cat, and Rita, when she came over, would witness it, and it would be a toss-up who would appreciate it more. Using the dolly, I could transport the pots around to the front where they could flank the stairs with a pharaonic grandeur and the undepressed world would pay homage.

The pots were as portly as my eldest brother and as disinclined to forgo the sedentary life. To incline was what I had to convince them to do, one direction in order to position the tongue of the dolly, then the other to settle them in the metal crib. I managed the first, but was stymied by the second, which required leverage with low-back contributions. Was this a good idea? Emptying the pots would make the task simple, but that would mean getting dirty. I didn’t want to get dirty. I didn’t want to garden. I wanted to create outdoor effects, grand and Egyptian.

Rita could lend a hand. She was home. I had glimpsed her earlier through the grapestake fence, watering the pots on her deck with the water she collects in gallon jugs as she awaits hot water in her shower and at the kitchen sink. She has done this without fail since the drought of the late ’70s, through wet years and not-so-wet ones. I once congratulated her on her diligence. Her plants were plump, her look was withering. And you waste water?

I had to ring three times before she came to the door. She hadn’t heard the bell because of the radio. Was she going deaf? The blather set me on edge. Radio talk was an addiction, she admitted as much. I hoped it might weaken once the misunderestimated president was back in the Texas sage, and spring was waxing in the treetops. What makes an addiction is imperviousness to circumstance. Wasn’t it reasonable to assume that the people we had elected would do their jobs quelling the barbarians? I knew there wasn’t much evidence for this, but self-deception was worth a few weeks of peace and quiet.

“Just a dang minute,” she said as I tried to hurry things along. “You’re always so impatient. Let me get changed. What do you have against staying informed?”

“It’s not information, it’s opinion. Pundits being pundits. They’re news celebrities. I’m sick of their opinions. I’m sick of my own. You don’t need to get changed.”

“I do, too. I want to work in my garden.”

While she was in the bedroom, I listened to the program, which was about nukes—nukes in Pakistan, nukes in Iran, Israeli nukes, mini-nukes coming in the Golden Gate. The moral quandary of the 12 violas shrank. Fear sprouted in its place like a weed, its roots going back to the October day our parish priest paid a visit to our classroom to tell us that the world might end in the next few hours, that if we heard a boom, we should crawl under our desks and put our hands over our heads. The world ending didn’t mean a thing, but Father McGlinchey was terror on wheels. His cologne, eau de cigar, preceded his broken-nosed, bowlegged appearance in the school halls. A whiff and my stomach did a cartwheel. I couldn’t get over how he slammed Dean Stuhlsatz into a locker, snarling, “You little pansy. You think you’re such a hotshot.” If Father McGlinchey was scared, hell was going to swallow us whole.

I turned off the radio. The transformation was sharp and clean, a shunt back to the present. A bird sound, a piping more tune-up than song, threaded through the moment, welcome as rain.

O Time, thou must untangle this, not IIt is too hard a knot for me t’untie.
—Viola, in Twelfth Night

The cup on my desk holds employable pens and a few hopelessly out-of-work pencils. A floral illustration wends around it. Two moths, viewed as if from above, flit over the purple and yellow flowers. The plant, Viola tricolor, is drawn with a bit of license as a vinous tangle. A common name, heartsease, appears in tiny cursive near the bottom of the cup. It is better known as Johnny-jump-up. It jumps up in my garden now and then, imported by an agency I had no hand in, at least not that I know of. I welcome it, but don’t expect much from its visitation.

V. tricolor is an ancestor of the demure plants I got in the nursery, as well as of the pansies best seen in sweeps around gas stations in summertime. The horticultural fiddling that transformed jumping Johnny to flagrant pansy began around the turn of the 19th century. The progress was swift and dramatic. From The Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary: “Selection in Britain led to a creation of a special group called Show Pansies conforming to rules laid down by florists and Pansy Societies.”

Here is my stimulus package: down with Pundits, up with Pansy Societies.

I broke off the cup’s handle a month before Aunt Dot moved out of this house. Half-packed boxes cluttered the kitchen floor. Full ones were piled in the living room. She was seated at the dining room table, taking a rest. Her hip was giving her trouble. We were both a little blue, deflated by the dusty melancholy of the packing. I was washing the dishes from lunch, pasta with cilantro and a touch of lemon. (I can still taste it.) Coincidentally, or not, she had been musing about the china, whether she should take the floral set to her apartment in the assisted living complex. She was thinking she would not; the set had far more pieces than she’d need. Did I want it?

I didn’t know what to say. That I might imminently become a person who owned a set of china was a truth almost as peculiar as this house soon being mine.

I might have heard it happen as I shuffled the submerged dishes. I reached into the soapy water and when I raised the cup the handle dropped off, nicked the side of the sink, and broke into four pieces on the tile floor.

The pieces landed near her foot, and she picked them up, momentarily studied them to see if they could be glued, and dropped them into the wastebasket. Seeing the look on my face, she laughed. “You look like someone died. It doesn’t matter a twig. Everything can be replaced, and believe it or not, everyone. I needed a little reminding. Thank you.”

. . . the herb I showed thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it see . . .

—Oberon, in Midsummer Night’s Dream

The “herb” Oberon requested was heartsease (also known as love-in-idleness).

The bad news is: not everything can be replaced, definitely not everyone. The good news is, Titania fell in love with an ass.

It was tricky, but I had managed to get the first pot safely down the steps, across the flagstones, and situated on the side of the stairs. The ensuing voyage with its mate went equally well except that I was too close to the house when I stood the dolly up. The pot bumped the wall, not forcefully enough to damage the stucco, but enough to cause a shock which translated into a fault rippling down its potbelly.

“Just turn it around,” Rita said, “nobody will ever see it. Calm down. You’re behaving like a jackass.”

The fault turned into a gap when I did some maneuvering, as Rita suggested, to face it toward the wall.

My consternation wasn’t just about the pot. I had broken a connection to Aunt Dot that was going to see me through to curtain drop. You forget the way people laughed, or spoke, or smelled, but stuff is eternal. I had been lazy and taken unnecessary risks. I behaved like a jackass because I was one.

“Pansy” comes from pensée, French for “thought,” perhaps because pansies seem to incline their heads in contemplation when blooming. “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts,” Ophelia famously says in Hamlet. I’ll think this through. Maybe I’ll try Super Gluing the pot, or cinching a cable under its lip to keep it from falling completely apart. I’ll never find a replacement, and won’t try.

No, not everything can be replaced, but some things can be mended. Sometimes they mend through no agency of our own, and heart’s ease returns. Johnny feels like jumping again. Now I’ll do the gluing, patient (I swear) as someone sifting dirt in the Valley of the Kings.

Dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly for more than a decade and were recently published as a collection by Ithuriel’s Spear Press. The book, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours, is available at and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R.E. Faro can be reached at Visit

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