Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Slants

Pink Chablis sedum. Flowers darkening in a dark season. The so-called pink looks purple in this photo. I’m always surprised how late in the year these bloom. Every year they arrive as a strong, timely color surge when their neighbors have shut their eyes and gone to sleep.
The lavender blossoms of the autumn anemone, seen against the returning vigor of the daylily spears. The red blossoms are red salvia, an annual, I transplanted in when clearing out the foliage of faded perennials.
Late season blossoms from a new pink lobelia acquired in late summer to help make a statement in this part of the garden. I planted it next to a veteran red lobelia, which begins showing in July and is now down to its last few petals. Look forward to seeing how these two colors set each other off next year.
Pink guara, another hero of the late summer’s last stands. The stalks are tall and wispy. They probably grow more densely in a true full-sun spot.
Multi-colored zinnias, planted from seed in the cold frame this spring. An annual, they grow tall and start to lean over, especially in these recent sun-starved weeks.
The "rose" hibiscus, a vigorous annual -- at least in these climes -- growing in a large pot. Will we succeed this year in rescuing it in time from the frosts and bringing it indoors?
Intriguing pink (again) turtlehead blossoms. -- they hold this shape; no further opening. First year for this perennial as well. The red blooms are celosia, another fill-in annual.

9.26 There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Eyes, It’s Just Getting Darker

It’s been warm and sticky for days now. But you can’t fool us. It’s not Louisiana in the summer. It’s not anywhere in the summer. If you leave work to go home at six-thirty, when you step off the train, the air may feel like July – but it’s dark.
The clock of the universe keeps moving. I thought I was enjoying my golden late-summer days, the serenity of August, followed by gently brisker, reliably dry days of September’s final summer weeks. But the play of the seasons didn’t follow the script. We got a succession of wet weeks, rolling up the days like a newspaper to slap at the endless supply of small, quick, late-born, in a hurry, blood-hungry mosquitoes. No garden work is attempted without their inevitable, head-buzzing accompaniment.
It’s actually darker more than half the time now. We passed that dividing line between longer days and longer nights when the sun ducked below the autumnal equinox last week.
What happened to those long, lingering outdoor suppers, when the light hung in the sky until nearly nine o’clock?
We move forward through time, gaining natural light, gaining outdoor time until by the same linear process we start to go backwards and find ourselves in a circular universe once more. We’ve had all the long evenings we’re going to get this spin of the globe.
Just as we have “less time,” fewer minutes and hours, that is, of natural light, the unripened fruit in the garden has less opportunity to be kissed by the sun. The unopened buds on the coreopsis have less urge to open themselves to the light. The flowers that have not yet managed to bloom are increasingly less likely to do so. I wait for them to open, but they just sit there, waiting for a Prince Charming who’s not going to come.
I’m not sure what the grasshoppers and crickets think of this development. The bees are if anything busier. The grasshoppers still hop away at my approach down some garden path that brings me too close to their current stations, provoking great acrobatic leaps into the void, or to the next cluster of leaves. The song of the crickets seems as consistent when my windows are open now to the strangely humid weather the newsprint meteorologist attributed to something “pesky” in the upper atmosphere, as they did in the stirring late summer dark of a couple weeks ago.
But I hope they don’t need a lot of natural light to finish their season’s business. They won’t be getting a lot of it.
It’s a good thing the twilights and early evenings this time of year are so beautiful, because we get to enjoy them at an earlier hour.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Secret Lives of Birds

A bird dives down from the Great Beyond, which is to say beyond the view from my window, and rattles the last red flower blowing on my red Lobelia on his way down. Was he aiming for it? The bloom shakes back and forth, then settles, pointed skyward on a doughty stem. (Good for another day? Still a target?)
The bird has disappeared from view. Was he aiming for the dense fluffery of the garden geranium? Does he have an appointment out of sight in the bowels of my crowded plant scape? What’s going on? Whatever it is, or isn’t, it’s utterly unintelligible to me, supposedly the only intelligent life form in this picture. Hmmm, could that be a matter of perspective?
What governs the sudden motions of birds?
What are they saying?
A rustle in the leaves and a slight, but distinct tapping somewhere on the other side of our screen door. I stare into the sunshine of a Saturday morning and spy the quick movements of the bird in the young Chinese elm tree between the sidewalk and the street. He hops and pecks again. The white pattern on his dark back feathers looks like the backbone and ribs design on a skeleton costume. He perches on the tree trunk right side up, medium sized, some reddish tint around the head. Once I realize it’s a woodpecker, I hope he’s not finding good eating in the Chinese elm, which the city planted a few years back in the sidewalk strip because we had put our name on the list for the tree planting program.
Shade trees along the street define a livable city. No single element in any urban, suburban or small town neighborhood says “nice place to live,” “cheerful,” “peaceful,” “good neighbors,” and “cool place to be in the summer heat” than shade trees along the roadway.
Why do the same residential blocks look harder, starker, colder, and less alive in the winter? Because the trees are no longer in leaf.
A few second later the woodpecker, sensing me watching, maybe, flies off from the elm tree into the big maple tangled up with power lines nearby. And from there, quickly, disappears from sight. Didn’t mean to scare him off.
Birds sing, and poets sing.
When human beings imagine divine beings, these superhuman beings fly. Birds fly.
We talk about contact with the “aliens.” Some kinds of aliens are here already.
But, of course, I will be told, once again, we mean contact with “intelligent life.” Perhaps we do not yet fully appreciate the intelligence of other creatures.
I never really know what’s going on in bird land. But we share a world, a space-time continuum, a “habitat.” And we both need trees.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9.15 Set in Stone

A leaf from the Garden of Memory:
I call in the 3-line “personal sentiment” to Calverton National Cemetery, where Mom was buried on Monday. I am happy that they will take this message over the phone – after all, these words are set in stone – rather than asking for a fax, or something in writing.
So, here goes.
-- First line, I say: “Loving wife and”
-- That’s too long, the voice on the phone says. “And” won’t fit.
-- It fits.
-- Did you count?
-- I counted.
(She counts). -- It just fits.
(Oh, was I not supposed to use the last character? Is there a setback rule?)
-- Next line, I say: “Mother. Colon. Space –“
-- They won’t do that. No punctuation.
-- No punctuation? Why is that?
-- It’s military. It’s a military cemetery.
(Who knew the military gets along without punctuation? That might explain a few things.)
-- Can we have two spaces after “mother” and before the next word, “look.”
-- I can ask the engravers. But I can’t say they’ll do it.

So, we lose the comma in the third line after “homeward” too. Apologies to Thomas Wolfe, whose title for his first and most famous novel – “Look Homeward, Angel” – I borrowed for Mom, desiring it for the connotations of both “home” and “angel.” And to John Milton, from whom Wolfe in turn harvested the phrase, taking it from Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem about the loss of a beautiful youth.
But the voice on the phone assures me the inscription on Mom’s headstone will done within 30 to 60 days. They wont notify us when it’s ready (“because there are so many”).
After those 30 to 60 days we will pay Calverton a visit. Maybe on Mom’s birthday.

9.14 “Tis an Unweeded Garden

The garden is a mess after my uncharacteristically long period of neglect. We were gone for the three-day Labor Day weekend, getting home after dark Monday night. It rained the next day, cold and rainy, but at least that meant no need to water. Also too wet to pick through the vegetable plants. It rained the day after that. I close windows, dig out sweaters.
The next day, a Wednesday, it’s sunny. Mom picked a good day to die.
So I’m away again from Thursday to Monday of this week (Sept. 12). Last Thursday, as I drove away for New York, it poured torrents, worse than the hurricane. So when I finally get a closer look at the front and back gardens yesterday (Tuesday) I’m shocked at the dry earth and the number of suffering plants. I have indoor work to do both Tuesday and Wednesday, two lovely late summer days, a little balmy, a little sticky, clouds in the late afternoon, bright moon at night – good days to live – and my digestive odyssey continues to impinge on outdoor activities. I need to build a public restroom in the back yard to cut down on travel time.
But things will brighten and please yet again.
I’ve added color with annuals forked in amid fading and clipped down perennials, working with a more lavish palette than previous years, a lot of dark reds. The green of perennial foliage sets them off. These are less interesting to me as plants, but keeping them watered and trimmed for the color effect is a September challenge. I’m harvesting color.
And the darker anemones, a rich violet hue, are showing now. And the bordering mums are beginning to bloom.
It’s a pleasure, each day, to walk on the surface of the earth.

9/12 Jean Doris Congreve Knox: 1920-2011

(This is a flower from the Garden of Final Appreciation, which is to say an obituary with attitude. I’ll supply the attitude.)

Jean Doris Congreve Knox was a child of the 20th century. Born at the start of the roaring, expansive, liberated twenties, her early life went up and down like a roller-coaster. Her father died when she was seven. Her family lost the business the entrepreneur, restaurateur, and muscle man John Congreve had begun, called Congreve’s Tea Room. So mom’s childhood visited some temporary addresses before the roller coaster went up again when her mother remarried to a successful recording engineer, known to the family as Dad Cheney, who moved the family back to easy street, a big house in the leafy Long Island town of Baldwin, where Mom grew up and graduated from high school.
Before that happened, however, the crash of 1929 wiped out Dad Cheney’s business and life was once more shadowed by worry over money. These facts are the origin of the house drama in Mom’s early life. Her twice-widowed mom eventually lost “Dad Cheney’s big, beautiful house,” as Mom described it, and the family moved back to the Flushing brownstone where she was born, and Mom took a job in an office to support the household.
What she wanted from there on in was a house of her own. That took a war, the arrival of Dad, Alva Knox, whom she married in 1946, surviving the postwar housing crisis in Flushing where the married couple lived with her mother, her older brother Mark, and whoever else helped pay the rent – and her first born, me – until dad’s income and the postwar building boom on Long Island succeeded in providing one, at 54 Downs Road, Hempstead.
What did Mom want in her life? She wanted a house. A house meant security, stability, the banishment of anxiety – who among us doesn’t understand that?
She wanted other things, of course. She wanted to go to college after earning a regents scholarship to a teachers college, but her family needed her to work. Every life has regrets and sacrifices. Mom looked back some, but she didn’t let it spoil today.
Mom had an easy touch as a mother, no heavy guilt trips, no ill-concealed surrogate ambitions for her children, no intrusive hands-on management style. As her son, I honor her motherhood. She kept the show going at home and did a fair amount of getting out of the way. Mom was also looking to have some fun. So we went to the beach, we stopped for Carvel, we were encouraged to throw ourselves in the ocean and learn how to jump the waves. We got an endless series of chocolate cakes, Mom refining her style over the years to arrive at the heralded chocolate chip, Saturday night special. We ate supper on tray tables in front of the TV when Dad was working late or going to his bowling league. We had had spaghetti with meat sauce on Saturday nights and melted cheese sandwiches with bacon on Sunday nights.
We played games. Mom was a devoted card player for the fun of it. Mom liked people, like socializing, liked having fun, laughed easily over little things. She taught us rummy and kissena. She played cards on the beach with her children and their friends, wind blowing sand through the game and into her plastic bags of beach snacks.
Mom had a gentle way with people. Her daughters-in-law, a set of two, bless the skies for a mother-in-law without a forbidding command presence. In our little way, her kids were going multicultural. Jews, Catholics? Mom was cool. Mom would have been polite if we’d brought home a gorilla, but in the event she was loving and accommodating to new family members as she was with the old ones. It takes some of us more demanding types a good many years to appreciate these qualities.
Mom didn’t want to be the life of the party. What she wanted was the party. People came to her house because it was an easy place to be. She never liked the quarter-mastering and food prep side of the hosting business, but she had her chops down to make you feel welcome.
Sonya, her first grandchild, who’s not here because she lives in Lebanon, recalled these routines from childhood visits: “All sorts of memories keep surfacing, but the ones hitting me most clearly are watching her set up the Ritz crackers and Triscuits and slices of orange cheddar cheese on the wooden cutting boards (carefully all layered up on each other) any time any guest arrived to the house on Downs Road…. And watching her charge out of the surf at Jones Beach.”
Mom loved the ocean so much we went to Jones Beach during a hurricane, rather ironically named Bob.
Mom’s memories, when we pulled them out of her, were of little pleasurable things – pet rabbits and cats in Baldwin (and more cats, plus a few dogs, later in Hempstead), visits to the farms of her older relatives, boat rides in the waters off Queens, the uncle who woke up visitors by playing “heigh-ho heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go!” on his record player at dawn when she stayed at his farm; flowers, and childhood friends, family visits, and bowling leagues with Dad. In my dreams I plant flower gardens at 54 Downs Road – didn’t happen, but Mom planted flowers there and planted the seed of growing things in me.
She took us to church, where the elegantly metaphysical language of the Episcopalian liturgy still rings through my thoughts. And she played the piano like the gifted student she always was – “practicing” as she called it on Tchaikovksy, and Debussy and Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, looking at musical scores that turned the pages black with crowds of flying notes and after a while getting tired and saying, “Oh well, it’s really too hard for me.” A lot of that music stayed inside of us as well.
And you could be the life of the party on the piano, as she was for uncountable family gatherings. We stood around the piano and sang songs because mom could actually play them. She played old songs and new ones, read sheet music at first glance, played background numbers for church fundraisers, accompanied prima donnas, banged out “The 12 Days of Christmas” for yearly gatherings at John’s house so we knew it really was Christmas, entertained at the Hertlin independent senior living center and the Nesconset nursing home, and eventually at age 90 whittled her repertoire down to her swan song, “It had to be you.”
She never made anyone feel bad. She wouldn’t have known how if she wanted to. She rolled with the punches, took what came, found reasons to feel good, found the right thing to say.
We die old, if we’re fortunate. But we live all our ages. We remember the mom, the grandma, the mother-in-law, the neighbor, the friend who mattered to us. I see her laughing and exclaiming how lucky she is to scoop up a pot of pennies by going out in a Michigan Rummy Game. Maybe they were pennies from heaven.

The poem of Mom’s Last Days goes something like this:

Near the end
Mom becomes an angel
Or perhaps merely a weightless, ethereal figure
Quiet, gentle, easy to please
Forgetting all the stress and character acting of mortal existence
Give me wings to fly, her final phase seemed to say,
And I will leave you all behind

Between the Labor Day weekend
And the 10th anniversary of nine-eleven
Mom let go
Picking her spot, not bothering anyone,
Leaving quickly by a side door
Known only to one who covered the ground carefully
And did not take up too much room

9.7 Look Homeward, Angel

So now I get to write Camus’s famous sentence: Aujourd'hui, maman est morte.
It usually rains for funerals. Which day do we want it?
So does this mean we never got to say those meaningful things we never manage to say, even if we have all the time in the world? Even if given an appointment by the lord of death, I’m not sure I would have said them. Or what exactly they were. Would it have meant something to whisper them in the ear of an unconscious, or semi-conscious, old woman. Who was, all insist, not in pain.
Aside from the observation that she was declining, I don’t know what we’ll say she died from. We had frequently observed that her vital signs were good. “It was just time.” Does something in a person know when it’s time? That there was little of life left, or little of the person who lived it.
I’m not sure she knew who we were at the last visit during the summer, though she behaved as if she she did. Her conduct toward me as it has always been in the last years dominated by what we called “memory impairment.” She struggles to listen, and then to make sense, offering occasional murmurs or replies. And if I’ve made an impression, then she asks a question that relates to some aspect of what I’ve said. And who’s that? Where did you come from? You’re staying with John?
That last time, June, when we sat outdoors in the pavilion on the nursing home grounds, I called Sonya over to sit beside her. And so she had a turn of saying things to my mother, her grandmother, as well, and we recalled things. You loved the beach, Grandma. I did? You loved going in the water and jumping the waves. Mmm… Do you remember? Mmm, maybe.
Saul was not there on that occasion, but he was there for the “snowstorm birthday” on Dec. 26. I will say that he had a last visit too. “Last”? “Time”? It’s all relative – and then it’s final.

9.7 Faces Come Out of the Rain

The world wears a sad face. This is a hard season for me. I don’t even want to go outdoors. After days of incoherent weather forecasts I finally read in a newspaper story, a news brief which seeks, helpfully, to sum up what has been going on in the atmosphere – and what’s more important than the atmosphere? – and informs me that the remnants of Tropical Storm Story Lee, which soaked New Orleans, collided with a cold front along the East Coast giving us cool, dark, very wet days. I had foolishly wished for some rain over the weekend before we left for the Berkshires.
Be careful what you wish for.
In Berkshire County, the air was as humid as it had been all summer. Then it rained, really rained, way more than our so-called hurricane.
Back in Quincy Monday night, we opened all the windows and put on the fans and it was still stuffy in the house. Some time in the middle if the night the chill rains found us – somebody pressed the button for the cosmic cold service – whoosh poured in the chill, dank air of some other season, not late summer, not mellow September, the room temperature dropped twenty degrees in wind chill and I got out of bed to close the window.
O where has my late summer serenity gone?
I don’t even want to leave the house to look at the back garden. That’s saying something – something I don’t want to hear. This is not stay indoors time of year. I will find my sweaters. I will find an old hat (I left my good one somewhere) with a brim to keep off the rain, dig out an even older raincoat, and remember that this is the right time and even the right conditions to do the ambitious transplanting, moving some of the groundcovers around for stimulation and esthetic effect, re-arranging the furniture, so to speak.
Ah, I will get back on the job of seasonal beautification.
I will package my sadness in a trekker’s knapsack and get my hands dirty and my feet wet. I will stretch and strain. It will be good for me.
I will peek over my shoulder from time to time, glancing left and right, and look for subtle arrows of the sun.

Friday, September 2, 2011

After the Flood

Is there a better day than the one that follows a hurricane? I mean, of course, granting we’ve been spared any serious losses. No trees have fallen on the house, no roofs have been blow off, no floods have washed through the basement (or worse), and – thanks be to dumb luck – the power is still on. Since, for many, it wasn’t.
Granted all these dispensations, the day after a near natural disaster is as sweet as a day can be. And the days that followed this week extended our good fortune.
After a big, ballyhooed weather disaster, we have all become a little bit like Noah and his extended family, chosen to ride out the flood in safety. Our arks have sailed on the roiled waters of TV images of watery and gale force destruction, dire forecasts, battered expectations, surges of desperate rhetoric, tidal flows of bad tidings – and now, some hours or days of forced idleness later, we have come through.
Our dove returns with a green sprig in his mouth. Our arc settles on Mount Ararat. We find ourselves in a cleansed and sanctified place – all rough weather, darkness, and humidity blown away
No crystal shines clearer than this day. The air is dry and the rain water swallowed deeply by the earth. Leaf and flower gleams with satisfaction.
We look about for signs of the change, and what do we see? A few blooms on the seasonal shrubs. We see a white Rose of Sharon. This name, I learn, first appeared in the King James Version of the English Bible, likely as a mistranslation of a Hebrew word for crocus. The word “Sharon” comes from the name given to a coastal plain bordering the Mediterranean Sea. An invented name for a flower which has pleased generations ever since, the Rose of Sharon first bloomed literarily in a translation of the Song of Solomon.
When we plant, look at, admire, or otherwise reference this common English shrub, we are evoking the ancient notion of a “holy land.”
Words preserve old ideas in a language carried from generation to generation, even after we forget their origins. But those origins tell us something. Do we not all live in a holy land?
After the flood, the earth is cleansed and restored. In eastern Massachusetts we just had a little dust-up of wind and rain, of course. No transformational catastrophe. But for a time we suffered the loss of resources, of pleasures, we might ordinarily enjoy. We stayed indoors, kept out of the rain, watched wind blow, reacted to the bigger gusts. We lost a summer Sunday; some a whole weekend. Maybe we worried a little, or reflected on our shortcomings.
But look! we have come through (to quote D.H. Lawrence’s book of poems). The world has given itself back to us.
It glows. Is there anything more beautiful than perfected sunlight? It is the father of delight. In its embrace the earth reveals its beauty.
I’m not Jewish but my wife is, so I have learned to regard the coming month as a sacred season, in which the “high holidays” approach. And oh, yes, the holy month of Ramadan has just concluded as well. Eid Mubarak!
I look at the world and I answer my own question. We live in a holy place.