These words have been missing for me for days and here they are, suddenly, arriving as I listen to Bill Bryson read his book, At Home, driving the length of highway that connects my current home in Copley Township with my urban office. It is the chapter on the history of gardens. Perhaps these words arrive at this moment because I have spent so much time coming and going from the gardens I have loved: leaving the gardens of my youth in Geauga County each summer where I walked acres upon acres of tall corn stalks and long plots of tomato vines to return to the industrial rooms of middle school; leaving the landscape beds at Six Flags I tended two summers to go back to college; leaving the flowers my mom and I split and rearranged around our home to grow my own roses and plant a brick patio behind the first house I owned with my husband, then going again to the garden we tilled and cultivated and planted with our three children on our postage-stamp property in Ashland; only to leave again, now, to this garden.
I have inherited for the time being my husband’s grandmother Garnet’s gardens and tend the beds she planned and planted. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren scamper and dash and dig on this property in Copley. Garnet and her husband bought this lot and built this house 54 years ago, when my husband’s dad was 11, just two years older than my daughter is now.
I never expected to move here or to want to settle here. There’s no doubt that I’m a sucker for all things nostalgic, even those that aren’t directly tied to me, but when my husband first suggested the idea—a solution to the next coming and going of changing jobs and communities, without carrying two mortgages—I crinkled my nose at the idea: “But it’s grandma’s house.”
It smelled like grandma’s house. Even though my in-laws had made significant progress emptying out the accumulations of twist-ties and plastic bags, funeral notices and old greeting cards, magazines from the 1970s and empty gallon jugs, there was still so much stuff, musty and dusty, mothballs and mold and so many reminders of her. Her furniture was arranged exactly as it had been since she moved out two years earlier, when she was unable to stay any longer, unable to figure out why it was so hot in her house, why the pot had burnt down black, how to operate the microwave.
“Maybe just for a time, only for a season,” I reasoned, prepared to make some other foreign house nearer to my new job our home. In the meantime, we’d use this place as our transition. A layover between one plot and another.
Now it is spring. We have inhabited this space for six months, slowly going from “let’s go back to the house—grandma’s house” to “let’s head home.” It is our furniture that mingles now with hers in the living room, several pots and cookie trays in our cabinets, the same floral carpeting and good-bad draperies left in place until a later date in our bedrooms.
But it’s the outside that carries her strongest memory, her greatest presence. Bleeding hearts are popping up everywhere this spring in the spaces we cleared away upon moving in last fall. There had been all this overgrowth and weeds, trees rotting outward from their heartwood, ground that settled toward the foundation so that rainwater rolled down the side of the basement and inward. Mold. Moss. Rot. Weeds. But the ground now around the house slants away, and we have shaped new landscape beds.
Seeds of plants forgotten bloom; their flowers are pale hearts wilting to seeds. I marvel at it all, new buds and new shoots, plants I don’t initially recognize, some that look like weeds at first only to flower.
Garnet isn’t gone from this earth yet, but she’s gone, into assisted living and hiding her illness well: grandmother fading slowly. It comes and goes. Before she lost our recognition, she visited and remarked what a nice place we have. So many flowerbeds! Now when we visit her, it’s unclear to me whether she knows who I am. I am sure she knows that my kids somehow belong to her, something at the cellular level that connects her fading synapses, so that recognition lights her eyes when my husband or father-in-law are near. The blood level of things binds the physical to the ethereal, the present to some far distant memory. Yes, these are Brandon’s kids! My great-grandchildren! My seed, my fruit, my vine, these are mine.
To me, she is polite and kind. We are strangers.
I wanted to call the foxglove “wolf’s bane.” When the perennial beds began to grow this spring there were leaves of plants I couldn’t name, green fan-shaped fronds, soft rabbit’s ear-like leaves, and a tall, wispy stalk that I thought might be garden phlox. The plant with the fan-shaped leaves was sprouting in all kinds of places around the yard, and since it didn’t look familiar, I figured it wasn’t just another weed, but what? What could it be? When the full cone of flower buds pushed up, I knew I wanted to keep it.
Something in me knew the plant name I was looking for had an animal in it.
These words—foxglove, beebalm—words I have known, like song titles or actors’ names, are always just out of reach. I imagine a gap between question and answer stretching across the great divide of left and right brain, neurons of language reaching, reaching into nothingness but knowing there’s something; surely I know this. What is it? Not wolf’s bane. The names come and go, I can picture that one actress, you know the one, my mother’s doppelganger, dark hair, wide smile, Miss Congeniality? How many times I have gestured with my hands in a circle, willing the words to my lips as if they are buried in my gut and just need heaved out.
And then, like a bridge, Bill Bryson reads his history of British landscaping and just like that, the words come gliding out, diving off the tip of my tongue. Foxglove! Beebalm! I chant in the car, elated to have found them, my lost vocabulary.
“I was going to get the… you know…” Garnet explains in the middle of the night, awake again for the third time, visiting the kitchen at my in-laws’ house. This is before we move to her house, before her dementia advances beyond the point of home care. “I need a cup of water,” she tells me, holding in her hand another cup, another one to line the windowsill in her room, abandoned, their purposes forgotten.
Before I found their names, I split the foxglove and beebalm and transplanted them around the house, to the new flowerbeds, unsure of what would bloom and where. The bleeding hearts were a surprise. I hadn’t seen them growing in her yard before we moved in, but now they’ve sprouted all over the place, in almost every flowerbed. The instant I find them I am transported to the limestone gravel sidewalk leading to a colonial blue house with colonial blue steps and a thick shrub of dark green foliage, sprays of hundreds of hearts in arcs against the cool foundation, and my grandmother’s blue pitcher filled with bright red fruit punch, and my flip-flops slapping on the wooden steps, the screen door swinging on its hinge and slamming shut, the dark interior of my grandma’s house in summer with the shades drawn to keep the heat out, the heaviness of that pitcher of sugar water as I tried to pour some into a red Solo cup. My cousins would be out there, waiting for me to come back to play ball or TV tag. Or maybe we were taking turns on the rope swing under the tall maples that lined the lane, spinning each other dizzy until we felt we might lose our lunches on the lawn. Stop! Stop! I shrieked, running in to get my drink.
But now it is a different grandmother’s house and I am so much older. My sons are in the sandbox here and then they are running with the neighbor kids. My daughter’s basketball throbs against the cement her great-grandparents poured decades ago, and I am finding more species of lilies to split and divide and plant next to bleeding hearts.
The bleeding heart’s scientific name is Lamprocapnos spectabilis. It is a spectacle here, and I save each offshoot I discover, worried to disturb its roots too much. Originally from Asia and introduced to European gardens in the 1800s, it is not native to this place either, but what is anymore?
We turn over old landscape beds grown over with thick groundcover and a mess of variegated hostas so that my dad can backfill the foundation, to keep the rainwater from running toward the basement. I keep the blue star juniper and move the lacy ferns, tell my dad just knock over the rotting dogwoods. The pruning we did each year to save the trees was in despair. It is so easy to clear away these decades of growth, and yet the bleeding hearts return, the bleeding hearts grow.
Bill Bryson spends his book At Home coming and going from his house in England, back through history to the beginnings of domestic life only to return again to his country parsonage, its cool stone walls, its nooks and crannies, its modifications and renovations. I wonder if he ever wanders room to room now, the past and present whirling around him. The people who came before him are only spirits, buried in tax records and graveyards or mentioned in old newspaper archives, maybe a sketch or a frowning photograph. They are only known by what little is left behind.
I did not know Garnet when she planned the arching trellis near the back of our half-acre, or how long the wisteria vine stretched up and over before it withered to a rotted stump. I did not know Garnet before her husband Delbert died, before my husband helped her design the front landscape beds with their boxwoods and ugly purpleleaf sandcherries I would have advised against had I been here. I did not know Garnet when she and Delbert decided to add a few more pin oaks to the back lawn, and if I had I would have said, no, these are too close together, and right in the middle of the perfect backyard baseball field—didn’t you think about your future great-grandchildren when you chose to stretch that long garden bed that splits the lawn in half and how tall the trees would stretch, and how far the shadows would fall, and how quickly the yard can go from full sun to full shade, and how all that you thought was permanent is so very transient? Didn’t you know this, didn’t you see it coming, the way the words sometimes just disappear, the way you can know something all your life and then suddenly forget?
It works in reverse as well, memory lying dormant for decades and then there it is, that red Kool-Aid in a blue pitcher, long summers, all triggered in a single bleeding heart.
My mom planted a wisteria vine once, next to the side of their new living room addition. It creeped and trailed itself, attaching its strands like sticky frog legs to cling to the siding and reach its way ever higher, over the gutter and up toward the roofline. I loved those subtle greens and purples, its grape cluster blooms so casual. It grew and grew and grew, so fast and aggressive against the house, its vines lifting the gutter away from the siding, squeezing the deck’s wooden railing. You don’t realize the pull of vegetation, its strength and resilience, how it can change the landscape or cause disturbance, even destroying foundations if planted too near the basement or too close to a sidewalk. Roots have the power to lift concrete. Trees can wrap their trunks around barbed wire and hold it there long after the fence is gone. A rotted stump can look like it’s been dead for decades until suddenly one afternoon, you are weeding along the perimeter of your husband’s grandmother’s property to see a single wisteria vine inching its way out again, remembering what it was like to be alive.
It is thought that dementia might be caused by a lifelong series of mini-strokes. First you forget where you left your keys. A few decades later and you forget where you parked your car. A few decades later and you forget who you are. Gaps expand in the brain, a slow erasure until all is still, all is calm.
What is wolf’s bane? That’s what I wanted to call the foxglove in the garden. Wolf turned to fox. It’s a plant named after an animal. These are the crossed paths and confused neurons at play in my brain, almost funny. Bane, though, is something that ruins or spoils, something poisonous. A glove protects.
My mother-in-law is known for these associations. Shopping for her teenaged son, she told the sales rep she was looking for a CD by a band, “I think it’s wet frog on a bike in the rain.” And he said, “You mean, Toad the Wet Sprocket?” “Whatever!” she likely laughed, loud and full, uninhibited and unconcerned about this frequent memory twitch.
But Garnet once told my mother-in-law, “You’re not blood. You don’t matter.” The memory of it is a live wire of synapses, never far from her. Wolf’s bane. Poison. And yet she is able to swallow it, make Garnet breakfast and coffee, unlace her tennis shoes, persuade her to bathe, lead her back to bed, take out her hearing aids, help her undress, then wade with her through the twilight of dementia again another night. Sometimes Garnet seems to forget her daughter-in-law is her daughter-in-law, and she is kind. Polite. Grateful.
Now the beebalm that is blooming, I knew it had something to do with an insect when I stretched my fingers back in the recesses of the garden bed for some forgotten reference book of perennials. But just as quickly as foxglove came on my drive home, when I wasn’t even looking for the name, there it was: beebalm, something that sounds like it should be soothing against a sting. Its scientific name is Monarda. This too triggers some chemical electricity and I immediately think monarch, then, how can I find milkweed to plant in these flowerbeds? Just as swiftly I am hunting through the fields and finding caterpillars on milky leaves as a child on my way to young adulthood, chrysalis in the process of transformation, no longer caterpillar and not quite butterfly.
Garnet watches her great-grandchildren with unobstructed delight but possibly does not know they are hers. Possibly only knows for a second they are kin. These are mine. I don’t know how or who but yes.
It looks like a coffin, this mummification against the milkweed. She is in the chrysalis, I think, her former self gradually fading, falling away. There are simple pleasures left, now: children, grandchildren, warmth, dessert, birds. Soon there will be no words. I don’t know what happens next, what happens to the soul when body and mind slip into unconsciousness. Do we make return visits, are there round-trips from one place of leaving to another, or does the life before appear again in an instant, triggered by some distant object now near, the past and future layered transparencies of wisteria, blue pitchers, and bleeding hearts?
This slipping away, maybe it is yet another metamorphosis, the slit in the chrysalis indiscernible to the caterpillar but the next adventure to the monarch, drying out, taking flight, past life a memory faint as it lifts off to kiss the phlox, the foxglove, the beebalm.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes. Her essays have been listed as Notable in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She serves as the managing editor for the Weatherhead School of Management and associate editor at River Teeth. She blogs regularly at offthepage.com and sarahmariewells.com. Follow her on Twitter: @sarah_wells.