Mary, Mary, quite contrary – how does your garden grow?
On this morning’s walk, I passed a gorgeous group of pale pink shrub roses which lined the entire edge of a chain-link fence. The roses grew so abundantly on either side of the fence, you could barely see the metal. You don’t have to ask if I stopped to smell them; the scent was so fragrant I smelled the roses before they were in my line of sight. Contributing to the heavenly essence, was the high humidity and an automatic sprinkler system nearby which was gently misting the blooms. I would call it potpourri for the soul.
I have pink Bonica miniature shrub roses which bloom profusely year after year and never fail to disappoint with their ever-blooming pale pink buds and blossoms and very easy maintenance. I have a salmon-colored “Dream Cloud” rosebush which I bought for $1.00 at Frank’s Nursery. It looked pitifully small and bare and no doubt the store almost tossed it and was grateful to sell it for a buck. I am happy to say that my TLC caused this rose to rally and it is now nearly thirty years old. My group of red Knock Out “Home Run” shrub roses encompass half the length of the fence and tower over me. In the morning, the dew on the roses creates a scent so heady that it will take your breath away. I really do love roses.
When I was a novice gardener, I bought a half-dozen tea rosebushes because I thought delicate tea roses were the epitome of rose perfection – fragile, perfect colors or color blends and quite often named for famous people. However, I had no success with tea roses; it seemed it took forever for one or two buds to form and once they opened, they were spent within a day leaving the rosebush looking bare for weeks on end. Frustrated with their fleeting beauty in the yard, I pulled every tea rosebush out, which was no easy feat as they had big, established roots, were very thorny and extremely hard to grab and pull. I got ‘er done and immediately planted the Knock Out roses in their place. In 2010, I created a memorial garden for my mom who had passed away in January. For years I coveted climbing roses, so after studying the “Jackson and Perkins” catalog, I ordered an umbrella trellis and three “Stairway to Heaven” red climbing rosebushes. They were bare root roses – a first for me. They arrived via UPS and needed to be soaked immediately in a bucket of water for 24 hours, then planted and dirt mounded over the wild-looking roots, then watered. Good enough, except I planted them in the morning and we had a horrific torrential rainstorm that evening. I was afraid to go out the next day in case they had floated down to Fort Street. That was not their downfall, but the climbing rosebushes never climbed nor amounted to anything resembling the pictures touted by J&P in their catalog. They finally succumbed to black spot. I treated them for that disease on an almost-weekly basis but they always were leafless, looked stringy and scraggly and rarely bloomed, so sadly I discarded them and planted hardier Twist-and-Shout hydrangeas in their stead.
Well, enough of me and how my garden grows….
This post is mainly about Mary, my next-door neighbor from many years ago. When we moved to Lincoln Park in 1966, she was already in her 80s and an avid gardener. She had lived in her home since she first was married and her husband bought her one pale pink rosebush to celebrate their new life together. She often told us a tale of how money was scarce in those days. She stayed home with the kids, while her husband, a tailor in a downtown haberdashery, rode the bus to and from work for a menial wage. They never had a car, and she never learned how to drive. Her husband’s gift of the rosebush commemorating their nuptials and new house, was extravagant for them, because Mary said bills needed to be paid, food must be put on the table, and soon children came along, thus flowers were not a necessity, but a luxury, and one they could ill afford. It was understood that this one rosebush would suffice to beautify their humble home until they were “in the chips”.
Mary had such success with this rosebush, she decided to take cuttings, or propagate, from the established rosebush to make new ones. She told us that she effortlessly grafted and grew several new rosebushes. They thrived and soon there were tiny rosebushes dotting the back garden. Spurred on by her success on these fledgling rosebushes, she told us she spaded the grass out to enlarge the garden area, and persuaded her husband to get a load of good soil and soon she had small rosebushes lining the entire perimeter of her yard. When we moved here in 1966, there were very few empty spots of earth in her perimeter gardens to put one more pink rosebush, but still, you would see her “starting” a new rosebush, tenderly placing a cutting under a glass jar which acted as a hothouse in the searing sun. She was proud of what she considered “her own roses” but occasionally, well-meaning friends or relatives brought her a new rosebush as a present. She would accept the gift, but the new rosebush was relegated to a corner of her yard away from “her own roses” and it was almost as if she resented the rosebush intruding on her pink collection. There is still a huge cerise-colored rosebush tucked into the corner by my side door.
Mary was widowed in her early 70s and with her kids off and married, gardening became even more of a passion; that, and playing cards with the other seniors at the Lincoln Park Senior Center. She was remarkably agile for her age and she was out bending over almost to the ground weeding, or standing for long periods of time, pruning or deadheading her beautiful blooms at the crack of dawn. Here was this woman, throughout her 90s, with the strength of a mule, hauling the hose around the yard – no hose reel for her. Then she’d bolt into the house to get cleaned up and slick on some lipstick to trot over to the Senior Center around the corner to visit with her Hungarian friends. Often she brought her cronies back for a tour of the yard. They would all cackle at the top of their lungs in Hungarian, partly since Mary was nearly deaf, thus allowing her to hear them and then she would respond in kind. Sometimes it was deafening. She refused to wear hearing aids and shouted at everyone.
She was a large, big-boned woman with somewhat wild-looking curly hair and quite a presence. The neighborhood kids were scared of her because she barked at anyone who dared cross her front yard. She was polite to our family because my mom handed over occasional baked goodies and my father always shoveled her snow. She mowed her own lawn, until she went into the nursing home, unbelievably with a push mower. Our house must have passed muster with her as the only thing she did destructive was prune our hydrangeas which grew through the fence against her roses. The elderly neighbors on the other side had a row of plum trees which grew parallel to the fence. On the occasion when plums would drop off into her yard, she’d hurl them back over the fence, as if they were somehow offensive to her. She didn’t like teenagers much either. She once turned the sprinkler on a young teen neighbor’s lime green mustang which was parked in front of her house. The car had its convertible top down and she promptly put the sprinkler on just enough to soak the interior and make it a sopping mess. If you’ve heard the expression “an old bag”, well that definition fit her to a “T” – she was the ornery female equivalent of the late Andy Rooney.
This was the life of Mary and her daily Summer routine until, in her very late 90s, she became ill and had to go into a nursing home. She had been widowed so many years and her family did not live nearby and there was no one to help take care of her.
The picture above is my mom in Mary’s garden. The picture does not do justice to the beautiful yard; it is but one tiny snippet of the bounty of pale pink roses.
We never saw Mary once she entered the nursing home. The house was closed up, the mail stopped and a distant relative paid to have snow removal and lawn mowing done, both on a very occasional basis. Though the house now languished unkempt, unloved and neglected for over two years, that backyard of Mary’s flourished, and the rosebushes were just as strong and hardy, as they’d ever been. Sometimes I’d thread my hose through the chain-link fence and give them a good drink of water; after all it behooved us to keep such beautiful flowers alive to enjoy them vicariously across the fence, even if no one else gave a whit about them. A granddaughter and her boyfriend moved in for a few months, but she never set foot in the yard, and he mowed the lawn, quite reluctantly, at the speed of sound, then hurriedly stashed the mower in the hut and returned to the house and shut the door. Still the roses survived … and thrived.
Then, along came Jim, who sold his large parcel of land in Taylor and moved into Mary’s house. He brought large yard ornaments to his new digs: a full-sized trailer, a small camper and a boat, all which he stored in his driveway until he whacked down the ornamental fence, and all the rosebushes lining the entrance and side of the yard. He also cut down a huge tree so that he could work on his van in the yard. Such a waste of beauty – it made me sad to see the huge bonfire in the fire pit he made, as he tossed one rosebush after another into the blaze.
Today, some of those grand old rosebushes still grace my neighbor Marge’s yard … they are at least seventy or more years old now and still growing strong.
A single rose can be my garden…
a single friend, my world.
– Leo Buscaglia