Flowers and Other Things

I still haven’t written my last post about Italy.

You know how sometimes you are eating something so delicious, so far beyond delicious, that you want that last bite to last forever?

I have that regarding my last post about Italy. I know what it’s about. I just don’t want to write it because then the writing about my first trip to Italy will be over.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like much in comparison, but I also feel that way about this year’s last batch of photographs about SoCal. It’s just a post about some of the flowers I saw on walks, and one stop at The Corner Store; but I savor the savoring, if you know what I mean. On any late summer walk in a temperate climate, you’re going to encounter some picturesque flowers and very nice landscapes. I love to just walk around and see who wants their picture taken.

As you know, I am attracted to gardens that look as if they were put together at the end of a night of too much champagne. What if Jimmy Stewart’s character hadn’t  gone over to CK Dexter-Haven’s house after the engagement party to conspire with Cary Grant in one of the great drunk scenes of all moviedom? What if instead, he’d woven his way into a large nursery, zig-zagging up and down the aisles, circling the display tables, and putting some of this and a few of those into a shaky-wheeled red wagon? 

Later, having been dropped at the house by a very patient chauffeur, he sets to work in the yard. In the dark. Digging holes and tapping plants out of plastic pots. 

What would Katharine Hepburn say?
Because their sole purpose in life is to be attractive, flowers possess that compelling “Notice Me! No, Notice Me!” about them. But with no egos, no perfect legs that go all the way up to here, no fish-face selfies posted all over Facebook and Twitter, flowers have none of the annoying qualities of attractive humans. They are simply color and pattern that have made you wait: through the sprouting green stems, through the tight buds, hopeful. Hopeful.
Then for a day, or a week, there they are: a perfection no human could hope to create. You can’t even hope to capture most of them; cut, they shrivel and disappear almost immediately. These are flowers that keep their place outdoors. You either see them to appreciate their brief beauty, or you don’t. I feel badly for the people who are allergic to them and so must give them wide berth. I like to poke my camera lens as close as I can get and still focus.
These are some of the specimens that caught my eye last month. For the most part, I don’t even know their names (I think photo #2 may be foxglove).
I know that last one is a Rose of Sharon, a flower that appeals not only because of its wide range of colors and bloom types (single versus double, for example), but also because she has proved difficult to pin down. Experts have variously categorized Rose of Sharon as a type of crocus, a type of tulip, and a type of lily. Which is ridiculous, for it is perfectly obvious that she is a type of hibiscus. Or not. This purple and white number resides near the Point Fermin lighthouse. Isn’t just the thought of a lighthouse romantic?
I don’t know what you used to play when you were little, or what children play now when they aren’t fused to a video game of some kind. But when I was a girl, nothing appealed to me like playing “olden days.”
This may have been related to the fact that my favorite reading matter was biographies of historical figures. At our little town library, there was a whole bookcase devoted to a series of blue-covered biographies, and I read my favorites over and over: Louisa May Alcott, Juliette Low, Dolley Madison, Clara Barton. The books were illustrated by silhouettes that looked as if they could have been cut out of black paper and pasted on the backgrounds of old-fashioned striped wallpaper, or houses set right at the edge of dirt lanes.
I grew up in an old house, of course. Not really old by New England standards, but 19th century at least. When my eldest sister married, she joined a family who had occupied a ten-room center-chimney colonial a block from Long Island Sound that had been in the family since its construction in the very early 1800’s. (Construction by seafaring men usually in states of inebriety: there wasn’t a right angle to be found anywhere, and the house was famously haunted. In a cupboard in the dining room, a china cup hung from a hook and never stopped gently swinging. No matter which hook you hung it on, or whether anyone was walking through the room making the floor creak, that cup swayed back and forth. All night, all day, as far back as anyone could remember, as much as anyone was ever able to tell.)
Nothing pleased me more than to visit Nana Darnstaedt over the summer, to wander those creaking redolent rooms pretending to be a girl from long ago in a long hooped skirt and white pinafore. All day I would clamber up and down the steep narrow hand-made spiral staircase in front, perch in chairs stuffed with horsehair in the parlor, and play at the hopelessly out of tune old piano.
At night I slept in a sloping room with a tiny fireplace and a trundle bed, to awaken to salt wind and yellow sunlight in the elms out front. There was a china pitcher and bowl on the marble-topped bureau, and during winter visits I would think about the part in Louisa May Alcott’s biography where it said they had to break the ice in the top of their pitcher of water to wash their faces in the morning. Kids can romanticize anything.
Imagine the world you could have imagined for yourself as a child in the house at Point Fermin, standing up on that widows’ walk, peering out across the lawn toward the apparently endless Pacific, telescope raised to your relentless gaze as you watched for your father’s ship to approach. For many, this life was no fanciful child’s daydream. I remember a conversation with a very old lady out in front of Mary’s house once. She spoke with a thick brogue and touched my arm as she told me about her son, lost at sea. My Charley, she whispered, he never did come back.
Between Point Fermin and Mary’s house – as we walk it, at least – there is a charming place to stop for coffee and fresh pastry. It’s the kind of place where people meet to sit and talk for a good long time; you get the feeling they’ve been meeting there for a good long time. You sit on worn couches or at old wooden tables and look around at the array of old-fashioned toys and jars of penny candy. Well, it used to be penny candy. All of the artwork portrays The Corner Store.
As we walked one day, I suspected we were in a part of the neighborhood where…was this it?…was it around here?…yes! People complain about the noise, people complain about the poop, people complain about the damage to their gardens – honestly. Some people wouldn’t be happy if you hung ’em with a new rope.
Tell me the truth. Wouldn’t you love to look out into your front yard and see
peacocks and their hens wandering about? I would. I regretted leaving the telephoto lens back at the house, because the sight of a peacock strolling up the sidewalk, or walking around on a slate roof is truly a sight to behold. They have lived in this part of San Pedro for generations, and I’m always glad to see they’re still around, unfriendly human neighbors or no.
There’s something about living on the knife-edge between wild and civilized. I think that’s where entities like cats and flowers reside: you think you can manage them, direct them, get them to thrive. Often they do just what you would like, but so many times they remind us we only have just so much control. The most expert gardener suffers absolute failures, though people want to admire their “green thumbs.”
Gardeners know there are no green thumbs. We do our best to put plants in the ground, give them some of what they need, back off and hope for the best. Failed efforts are relegated to the compost heap and replaced by something perhaps more promising. Almost everything I plant holds the promise of flowers: colorful, temporary, impossible to replicate. When I introduce a new plant to the landscape I do my best to create a good space for it, but always walk away with the admonition, You can be easily replaced.
But even when I’m saying it, I know it isn’t true.
Go watch “The Philadelphia Story.”

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