I rounded the southwest corner of the house on my way to some chore but screeched to a halt when this caught my eye. Last week I wrote about how certain plants in my garden connect me to friends and family, and I’m going to do it again this week.
This is Iris tenax, or wild flag as my Gramma Davis called it. My trusty but disintegrating copy of Washington Wildflowers (Seattle Audubon Society, 1974) has this to say:”Flowers lavender, purple, or blue; rarely white, pinkish or yellowish. West. Wash.; open sunny areas, such as pastures, roadsides, meadows, logged land, and forest clearings; entirely in lowlands. Spring to early summer.”
I remember walking along the gravel driveway with Gramma Davis–we were headed to the mailbox out on Brown Road. To our right was a hayfield, and to our left were towering Douglas-firs. Couldn’t see very far into the trees through a tangle of salal and rotting high stumps. That chunk of forest was a big dark presence on the left-hand side of the driveway. Not Davis land, so we didn’t poke around in there. But on the margin of the trees, in the open sunny areas, clumps of these irises bloomed. I couldn’t help myself from going for a closer look, kneeling down to sniff and admire the colors and fine dark lines leading to the center. They were perfect.
Year pass. Gramma and Grampa Davis are gone. My dad is gone. With deep regret, my siblings and I sold the homestead where we spent so many days as children. What could else could we do, having inherited a crumbling farm at the beginning of our adult lives?
More years pass. I still have grandparents, my mom’s folks. They also have a farm in southwest Washington, where my sibs and cousins and I did a bunch of growing up. Nearly every inch of the place is as familiar as the smiles on my grandparents’ aging faces. Grampa Mueller died in 2001. Gramma held on for eleven more years. It was another crumbling farm, and every time I visited she urged me to dig something up–for each plant she could tell a story of origin. She was a great digger-up and could coax a slip of something green into flowering. The honeysuckle she got from Mrs. Henry up the road. The peonies and Lenten rose came from the Benthien Brothers nursery in Puyallup. She also transplanted wild things into her garden–yellow stream violets that she called johnny-jump-ups; bleeding hearts, trilliums. The trilliums and stream violets in my garden came from her.
And the wild flag…when Gramma could no longer walk back across the creek with me, even clinging to my arm going slow, I would go on my own and report back to her. “The spring beauties by the cedar patch are blooming. The trilliums will be along soon…” On one of these solo trips I took a shovel and a bag and collected a sword fern and clump of wild iris to plant in my current garden.
The sword fern is happy on the north side of the house in the shade, but the iris had nothing to say for a long time. Every spring I expect to look for it and not find it. But it surprises me with a few sharp blades poking from the earth. These grow into grass-like leaves and merge with the only partially-tamed jumble of geraniums and polemoniums. And then I round the corner of the house to find
flowers of my childhood. Delicate, cheery, open to the sun, impervious to the wind that bashes from the west. I hear Gramma Davis’ voice, telling me the names of things as someone once told her. I feel the warmth of a long-ago sun, the benevolent air, the absolute security of being in a grandparent’s company. Wonder and beauty flood into me–the world is there to be discovered.
Today is Father’s Day, and of course I think of my dad. I think of the Davis place, which I have never gone back to. In my mind, Dad is stuck at 46 years old and I’m 20, the two of us just beginning to get reacquainted after years of estrangement. We recognize ourselves in each other–it’s awkward, but it feels possible to become friends given enough time.
We were not given time. My brother and sister and I have been fatherless for 34 years. I’m not sure we have ever recovered from the suddenness of his going. Over the years, I suppose we have learned to father ourselves with the remnants of himself that he was able to give us. Dad feels far far away. Childhood feels far far away.
Yet I stop in my tracks to kneel by the wild irises that decided to bloom this year, just as I kneeled 45 years ago. Here’s a little piece of the far far away world that I came from. I see how swiftly they unfurled, and shone for a couple days before the edges of the petals begin to shrivel and curl. Oh, please stay awhile longer, I want to tell them. But they are on their own schedule, not mine.
That’s the thing with flowers: so transient, so beautiful. Life is always changing, never holding still. Sprout, grow, bloom, set seed, die, rest, sprout again. Children grow into adults and maybe become grandparents themselves.
Maybe we are all flowers–so transient, so beautiful, able to touch the far far away and still be here.