Why I Miss My Flower Garden

“Winter is not a season, it's an occupation.” Sinclair Lewis. In Wyoming, winter is a way of life. In Laramie -- where the elevation is 7,200 ft, where 100 days in a row above freezing qualifies as “summer” and the wind never slows – summer is an alternative lifestyle.
So when flowers in Laramie muscle up through the frozen red earth to bloom and breed, their brilliant blossoms seem, not mere displays of color, but more as nature’s colorful contempt for death.
I had moved to the “tree section” of Laramie, a patchwork of old, small homes for railroaders of a past era. Old cottonwood trees shade everything now, gnarly roots snake across lawns and buckle sidewalks. My house occupied a corner lot. My flower garden began modestly, just after I had undertaken a death-penalty case. As the pressure of that case grew, so did the flower garden, taking over half the lawn, laid out in long, neat rows.

My neighbors were, for the most part, old and alone. At first, I got to know them from a distance when blizzards roared through town and I shoveled snow from their sidewalks. When I would stop to catch my breath, leaning on my shovel, I would see them standing at their living room windows, staring curiously. A few waved.
The new summers arrived and they started coming by to visit whenever they spotted me working my flower garden, except one neighbor. She was especially old, weathered and worn.
One evening, I was on my knees and pulling weeds. Something moved at the side of my eye. I looked up. The old woman, hanging on the arm of another woman, was steering for me. I stood when they reached me.
“Thank you for shoveling my walk these last few winters,” she rasped. “Tell me about your flowers.” Her light blue eyes seemed to stare through me.
I pointed to wild rose bush against the house. “The wild yellow roses were here when I bought the place.”
She patted the arm of the woman she was holding onto.
“They have a sweet fragrance that you can only smell just after it rains,” I explained.
“I helped plant it. I’m glad you like it.” She laughed as her light blue eyes roamed my face. She looked like she was peering out from some ancient world.
“When Spring comes, I want the first flowers possible to bloom and want something to be in bloom all summer. The older I get the more I dislike winter.”
“It gets worse,” she warned.

“I want everything to come up year after year without me doing anything, so everything is perennial.”  I pointed to long row of flowers at our feet.  “This first row has crocus and the second row has grape hyacinths, which bloom in May.”

I wiped a sweat bead off my brow and swatted a mosquito, smearing blood and dirt down my forearm. “The next rows are tulips. They bloom just as the Crocus and hyacinths fade. Each row of flowers is taller than the one in front of it so nothing gets hidden away. Those last rows are hollyhocks.
“The peonies start blooming as the tulips fade.” I pointed to bush by the back door. “Then come the poppies.”
“Poppies aren’t perennial.”
“They reseed themselves … that’s perennial enough for me.”
She laughed.

“My favorites are the tall bearded iris.” The irises happened to be in full bloom and filled the garden with their displays of gold, purple, red, white and yellow.
I stepped over the rows of tulips to get to the irises. I reached down to a special one and tilted the intricate blossom her way. “This one is my favorite.”
She squinted to see it.
“As the iris fade, the hollyhocks start blooming and keep blooming into mid-October. They are the giants of the garden, those,” I pointed to two hollyhocks, “will grow to over nine feet tall. Then come the snows.”
“Then come the snows,” she patted the arm of her companion. “Time to go.

“It is so nice to have met you.”  I gently shook her tiny hand and then the hand of her younger companion, who said nothing.    As I watched them walking back toward her house, I realized I had not learned her name.  When they disappeared from view, I returned to my knees and pulling tiny weeds from around the flowers, forgetting about her.
The summer wore on and the days shortened.  After several hard freezes in September and a light snow, the land abandoned all pretense of life.  Everything bunkered down for the approaching winter.  That Fall, one evening proved warm enough that I pulled a chair onto my porch to read.  Something moved at the side of my eye.  I looked up.
The old woman was shuffling back along the sidewalk, keeping her balance with an ornately carved cane.  Her companion walked beside her, always trying to steady her but the old woman was having none of it.  She wanted to walk unassisted.  Neither saw me up on the porch.  She carried something in her right hand.

I watched quietly and unseen.  When they arrived at the spot where we had talked earlier, she handed her companion the object in her hand.  Her friend maneuvered to the rows of iris, next to the iris I’d shown them earlier in the summer.  I could see she had an iris rhizome in her hand.  She kneeled and worked it gently into the ground.  When she finished, the two made their way quietly back home.   I went back to my reading.

Winter came and blizzards again roared down the streets.  I continued shoveling the neighbor’s sidewalks but never saw her again.  One morning, I watched an ambulance pull up beside the old woman’s house.  The medics muscled out a gurney and wheeled it inside her house.  When they came out, the gurney carried a covered body.  
Over the next eight months, winter built then waned and, eventually, new crocus and hyacinths muscled their way out of the frozen earth and into sunlight.  By mid-summer, the iris began to bloom again.  I walked along one row of iris, studying each one while sipping red wine.  Suddenly, I stopped.  A new iris was in bloom, shaming its neighbors with its fluffy display of light blue like the old woman’s eyes.  I knew every flower in my garden, when I had planted it and where it was in its life cycle.  This was the flower the old woman had planted.

I moved on from Laramie to live in Boulder now, where Spring comes early enough to enjoy it.  My young neighbor has a flower garden with purple irises.  The other evening, I poured a glass of red wine and walked barefoot across his lawn to look at his flowers.

I pulled the iris rhizome from my pocket, knelt and worked it into the earth.  As the years pass, its fluffy display of light blue colors will faithfully stand vigil for the old woman.  

I miss my flower garden.

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