I made a rose garden for my mother.
Redolent old roses blooming against a weathered low brick wall. (Perhaps I'd say the bricks were from a once-fine country home, now crumbling against crape myrtle, or perhaps I'd say from some eighteenth-century church, fallen into disuse in an unsavory area in the heart of the parish.) Such care I took throughout that spring and early summer, steeping myself in the history of Chinas, Teas, Albas, Gallicas, Bourbons, Noisettes. Reading about botanists who brought back cuttings from China, prizewinning rosarians who could trace the ancestry of their present best rose back to the jardins of the Empress Josephine. I learned to decipher the tiny notations in the antique-rose catalogues I kept by my bed, signifying scent, hue, hips, remontancy - a lovely, lingering word meaning to flower again, meaning possessed of a second chance to bloom.
Sometimes, immersed in my invention, my hands would move as if handling real flowers, and I would arrange in the air bouquets of the old roses, clustering near-chocolate mauves, ecrus like faded parchment, dusty pinks, creamy whites, until I could almost see them. Until I sometimes actually walked out my back screened door into the oppressive, steamy coastal Louisiana heat, expecting to find that brick wall, the dark thick foliage, those abundant fragrant flowers.
All this was background, of course, me soaking myself in the subject until I had the right small details (casual as a pencil sketch on a paper napkin) to set the scene. The scene I hoped my mother imagined me, Ella, her younger and now only daughter, to inhabit. Me, once dismissed as difficult (mule-headed), wayward, willful, now, by default, back in her contingent, if not entirely good, graces, composing a conciliatory letter home.
Often, I would make mention of some favorite linen skirt or dress. Linen, as evocative a word as roses. Whereas, in fact, the last actual linen garment I'd worn had been the black button-front dress I'd stolen for my sister Terrell's memorial service. Even at the time (stunned almost to bruising by the unexpected loss), I was unable, looking at the appalling catchall contents of my own closet, to bear the thought of my mother saying: 'How could you show up looking like that, at your own sister's funeral?'
My actual life here in Old Metairie didn't get a mention. If I hadn't ended up destitute, as my parents predicted when I ran away to get married ('throwing your life away on a worthless boy who is never going to amount'), still, the house I occupied half of on the scruffy, run-down, not yet gentrified fringes of a safe, secluded resaca of a neighborhood was not something to write home about. Considering that it sat on an unpaved service road which ran along a railroad track and a bayou and dead-ended on the only through street in the area, one that allowed access by vagrants, thieves, and the rest of the working world. The reason I stayed put and paid the killing property taxes' So that my daughter, Birdie, could attend the local school, fairly good and uncrowded, since most of the local children, naturally, were sent to private schools.
At the moment, pen in hand, I was sitting in the kitchen at the back of the house, mouthing Dear Mother, Dear Mother, and looking out at my actual yard, a scrap of high grass partially shaded by the branches of a neighbor's sagging willow and by our own overgrown oleander (whose leaves were purported to be poisonous to children and animals). There was a little pea-gravel square that must once have been the start of a patio, and now was at least a place where, in cool, less steamy weather, my daughter and a friend could get away from me, or I could sit with this realtor guy who sometimes came around. I recalled reading some book in which the old woman (a char lady?) stayed in the unheated house all day long, only lighting the grate fire in the evening when her husband was due. They found her cold in her cold house. I was not really sweltering here in my shorts and T-shirt with no bra, my oak-brown hair pulled up on my head with a bandana, waiting until my daughter came home from her class to turn on the frigid, clammy window AC unit. It was just that the sound of the motor running seemed to me the sound of dollars disappearing. Most days when I was home, I made do with the ceiling fan and a glass of iced coffee. Besides, it hardly did to complain about the stultifying Gulf Coast humidity (the way sweat stood on your arms and legs as if you'd come from a shower, the way you breathed damp air as if in a steam bath), knowing that Texas had been in the grip of a dreadful, unrelenting, baking drought for a hundred days already. Hard for me, gone so long, to imagine: I always saw my mother in her own cultivated garden, ablaze with pink and red azaleas.
Excerpted from Ella in Bloom by Shelby Hearon Copyright 1/1/01 by Shelby Hearon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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