Lonesome Valley


It was Saturday morning and I was up early, walking around my yard with a cup of coffee, checking on my flowers. In summer, I try to do this for a few minutes every day, even on work days. I was sad to see that the inky-purple iris and dark-red peonies were done, but new things were always coming into bloom. The rose called “Chuckles” was creating a splash in the front garden, reaching above the peony bushes. Its blossoms were bright pink, with white rings at the center. I couldn’t imagine how the botanists had created this effect. And all for my enjoyment!

As a kid I was lucky, since both my parents were home all day, and both loved flowers. Mom was a housewife, and Daddy had inherited land, which produced income. That meant he didn‘t have to work. In summer we lived on the North Shore outside of Duluth, and then, each fall, we packed the car and headed to Texas, where we lived ‘till school was out in spring. This is how I learned to love the delicate flowers of Northern Minnesota, and also the waxy, brilliant ones of the South.

Summers in Duluth are cool, the air clear and sweet-smelling. The red clay soil is rich, and holds moisture, so certain flowers flourish. But the growing season is short, and temperatures often drop to -30 in winter. Delicate plants won’t make it, and flowers must be started early so they will bloom before the first frost.

My Dad had spent the depression landscaping people’s yards. He knew the plants that would survive in that climate, how big they got, what bloomed when, and how to position them all for maximum effect. When he bought the land on the North Shore, he built a small cabin to live in, and then a little greenhouse. There he started vegetables and all his annual flowers in the spring.

The front room of the greenhouse had cool cement counters and racks for pots and tools. It smelled pleasantly of damp earth. The back room had a roof and walls of window glass, and waist-high benches of rich dark soil. In early summer it smelled delicious as the annuals began to bloom. The growing season is short in Duluth, so the flowers wouldn’t be transplanted outdoors until they bloomed. But, with rich soil and lots of sunshine, the plants almost grew while you watched. There is something therapeutic about this age-old cycle, as tiny seeds sprout, stems shoot up, and leaves unfurl. The most exciting part is when the buds slowly turn from green to a color, unfold or unroll, and become flowers. That is a miracle that never fades, even when the flowers do.

In the morning, I’d sometimes go out to the greenhouse, sit on the old wooden chair, and daydream, staring through the old, wavy glass, and inhaling the heavenly fragrance. I didn’t know what course my life would take, but anything seemed possible then. And wherever I ended up, I hoped I’d have a garden.

After breakfast, it was a family tradition to take a walk around the yard, just as I do today, checking out the progress of the various plants like they were personal friends. Daddy knew the names of everything and would recite them. “Hmmm, the Spirea Bridal Wreath is coming along nicely,” he’d say. Mother was more inclined to gaze and sniff, but often she’d exclaim (just as she did to the very end of her life), “Oh, aren’t these lilacs beautiful!” “Syringa Vulgaris, common lilac,” Daddy would add happily, conveying somehow that, common or not, he considered them fit for a king. We’d all giggle, because he’d called the lilacs “vulgar”.

In November, when we’d go to Texas, a whole new array of growing things awaited, plants whose names we‘d almost forget over the summer. There was the forest of tall bamboo which grew along the road to the bay, swishing in the sea breeze and providing an endless supply of free fishing poles. The fan palm, a ball of dusty leaves high above the house, was also a change from Minnesota. There was a grapefruit tree, a pomegranate bush, a pecan.

The first thing we’d do when we got to Texas was run around the yard, checking out our favorite things. Then, while Mother opened windows, swept the floors, and made beds, Daddy would get the sprinkler going and drive downtown for groceries. Free till supper, we’d run down to the bay, gulping the smell of salt water into our lungs, and scanning the underbrush. “Look, lantana!” someone would exclaim, spotting its pink-and-yellow florets in the thicket. “Oxalis!” someone else would say, pulling up a couple of the big, edible clover leaves that tasted like vinegar. Each fall we re-discovered our favorites again. We would pick grapefruits at Christmas and crack pecans that fell off the tree. Daddy grew fresh vegetables all winter.

How could this heaven end? Under the orderly surface, our family was coming apart. It was a rift too wide to be spanned by a love of flowers. Daddy was quietly drinking himself to death, and Mom did what the wives of alcoholics often do–she went through the motions of our daily lives, but in truth she was withdrawing from all of us.

Daddy was not himself my whole thirteenth year. He became someone we’d never seen, crazy, out of control. It is called “alcoholic dementia”, but of course we didn’t know that. He flew into rages over nothing, and sometimes, now, talked incoherently. He lost interest in the Latin names of plants. He drove us to Texas in the fall like always, but it wasn‘t the same well-ordered process. He would send us to dinner by ourselves, so he could stay behind and drink. In one town, he had forgotten to make motel reservations, so there was a scramble to find a place to stay.

And once, somewhere in Missouri, he suddenly pulled the car over, not carefully, like before, but with a swerve and a screech of tires. After a few seconds of clutching the wheel, the engine ticking in the silence, he pulled a large bottle of gin from underneath the seat, tipped it up, and gurgled a lot of it down his throat. It seemed he would never stop drinking. I still remember feeling afraid as I watched the sun shining through the green glass of the bottle, the liquid gurgling down. I had never seen him drink openly before. After that we drove on. HE drove. No one mentioned it. We were all frozen by what had just happened. There was so much we didn’t know!

By spring, Daddy was too sick to drive, so we had to stay in Texas, while the heat baked our little house and the asphalt melted on the streets. Daddy was mostly bed-ridden, but sometimes he wandered, too, and Mom had to lock him in his room. Then he would rage, pound on the door, and shout crazy, incoherent things. I had to help Mom shave him, cringing at the whiskers that had suddenly turned grey, the hollows in his cheeks. The helplessness. These were signs of mortality even I could understand. Mother stopped cooking meals altogether. What we ate, we scratched together on our own. The garden was forgotten and went to seed.

In August, Daddy died. And, from that point on, though our family stayed together for awhile, our lives changed, never to revisit the peace and order of the past. It was a long time before I thought of flowers again.

I don’t know how we’d have turned out if this hadn’t happened. It was a rude shock to go from the security of Daddy’s world to the chaos and confusion of Mom’s. Daddy’s property was tied up in probate, so for the first time we experienced hardship, and, sometimes, even hunger. We moved back to Minnesota, and spent the next three winters trying to survive in a house only meant for summer. Mom got a job but didn’t earn much. She had to learn to drive. She never went back to cooking meals or dealing with things. What she didn’t do fell on us. The hardship of those years haunts me still.

One way or another, we got out as soon as we could. Only Barb, the youngest, was left when the estate finally settled. She never got her childhood back. Mom stayed disorganized and eccentric, a problem for us kids, throughout her remaining 48 years.

It amazes me that the rest of us survived.

Yet here we are. In fact, after some milling around, we all prospered, in our own ways. It turns out that our parents, before they fell apart, gave us some good survival tools. We inherited intelligence and curiosity. They built on that, teaching us to read and to write well, to respect other people’s property, to work hard, love the natural world, and know, for what it’s worth, the Latin names of plants.

Most importantly, we learned that it’s a good thing to walk around the yard in the mornings, even for a few minutes, and look at the flowers.

That lesson, especially, has stayed with me.

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