Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Near the top of the long list of Things I Wish I Could Do But Can't (drawing, sewing, typing, tap dancing, surfing, etc, etc) lies gardening, a skill--nay, a talent--that has always seemed to me to be an enigma. Plants are, in my experience, petulant organisms; they'll turn on you for no good reason, simply because you plucked a stem on the wrong day or turned the soil 47 times instead of 50. They require extraordinary patience, and vision, and faith that this barren branch or fistful of seeds will take root, will bloom and flourish according to plan. I have always been enthralled by the sight of neighbors on their hands and knees on a weekend morning, faces and arms smeared with dirt, hauling bags of soil and mulch and wrestling with serpentine water hoses. What compels this behavior? How did they learn to do this? Or, more importantly, how do they know its going to work?

It has never 'worked' for me, that much is certain. Until a couple of years ago, a triad of Crinums constituted the bulk of our domestic "garden," which is apparently nothing to be proud of: I've heard more than one expert state something to the effect that if you can't keep a Crinum alive, you'd better just give up and hire a professional. Crinums are hardy; they are Chrissie-proof. They are beautiful, but they were here before we got here and they bloom spectacularly independent of any amount of attention or maintenance.

But the passion flowers, they are a different story. I discovered the passion flower on a trip to England in the summer of 2004, in the cottage garden of a friend of Cade's just outside of Cambridge. I sat on the patio and ate Cadbury's Milk Chocolate Fingers and spied, among a tangle of dark green vines, the most brilliant and complex flowers I had ever seen. They seemed completely alien, so intricately designed that they made me doubt my doubts about God. Someone had to be responsible for this impossible beauty.

I was extremely skeptical of Sean's claims that the flowers required minimal tending, and even more skeptical of Cade's mother's suggestion that we transfer some clippings from her own garden to the sad, barren flower boxes adorning the front of our house. Who was I to take on such a task? Those flowers, those passion-inspiring flowers, were so far out of my league I felt I should not even be looking at them, let alone assuming responsibility for their survival.

But before I could say passiflora incarnata, Cade's mother had sent us home with several pots of small, frighteningly delicate-looking passion flower tendrils. I watched as Cade planted the wispy vines, next to several thick, thorny bougainvilleas that seemed equally doomed to withering expiration. I did my best to ignore their presence--not wanting to get too attached, too hopeful--even when the tiny tendrils began to creep upwards, to wrap themselves around the sides and bottom of the ugly iron structure, even when Cade had to build copper scaffolding to support the vine's weight and to encourage further, upward growth. Now we were talking details: Should we put in a third piece of copper, to form a sort of arch, thus encouraging the passion flower to take over the entire facade? Should we plant more, on the other side of the house, to maintain balance, a feng shui with foliage? And lastly--this is the real kicker, here--should we prune the thing, or something? We have passion flower everywhere!

This, like so much in my life, is an unexpected abundance. Perhaps--no, not perhaps, for sure--I do this to ward off some anticipated and seemingly inevitable disappointment, but I tend to assume that the worst will happen (to me). I have never understood the people whose husbands or wives or--it pains me just to write this--children die tragically and/or suddenly and who subsequently proclaim that they never thought it would happen to them. I always think it will happen to me. I fully expect that I will die in a plane crash, or my car will plunge into the Mississippi River, or that Cade will die young or our house will burn down or I will be diagnosed with a lethal tumor of some sort. It is macabre, and I am loathe to admit it, but its true.

And its also why good things, particularly an abundance of good things, have always come as a surprise. Cade came out of left field; I was fully prepared and quite content to remain single, as I never for one minute assumed that I might meet my soul's mate. I mean, what are the chances of that? And having children was out of the question, as I never for one minute imagined I would be given such an enormous gift. It just seemed out of the question.

And yet, despite all my skepticism, I am continuously rewarded with unexpected gifts. Our success with the passion flower is but one example, and I am reminded of it every time I walk through the front door. I guess you could say it keeps me humble.

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