Lonesome Valley

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It was Saturday and I was up early, walking in my yard with a cup of coffee, checking on my flowers. In summer, I try to do this for a few minutes every day. The inky-purple iris and dark-red peonies were done, but new things were coming into bloom. Flowers have been a comfort all my life.

When I was a kid, we spent summers on the lake near Duluth, where the air is cool and sweet-smelling, and the clay soil is ideal for certain flowers. In fall we’d pack the car, and head south to Texas, where we lived beside the bay. My Dad knew the plants that would survive in each climate, what bloomed when, and how to position them all for maximum effect. This is how I learned to love the delicate flowers of Northern Minnesota, and also the waxy, brilliant ones of the South.

After breakfast, wherever we were, we’d walk around the yard, just as I do today, checking out the progress of the various plants. Daddy knew the names of everything and would recite them. “Hmmm, the Spirea Japonica 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, conveying somehow that, common or not, he considered them fit for a king. We’d all giggle, because he’d called the lilacs “vulgar”.

Different plants greeted us when we arrived in Texas each year. A grove of bamboo grew tall along the road to the bay, swishing in the sea breeze. There was a fan palm, a grapefruit tree, a pecan, a pomegranite. While Mother opened windows, swept the floors, and made beds, Daddy would get the sprinkler going and drive downtown for groceries. We’d run around the neighborhood, checking out our favorite things. In Texas, Daddy planted a winter garden, and Mother grew sweet peas along the fence. We would pick grapefruit at Christmas.

How could this heaven end? Beneath the 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. He was a stranger my whole thirteenth year, angry and disheveled. He staggered on his morning walks. He didn’t bother with the plants. He drove us to Texas in the fall, like always, but nothing felt right. We went to dinner by ourselves in the evenings, because Daddy couldn’t walk. In one town, he had forgotten to make reservations, and our usual motel was full.

And once, somewhere in Missouri, he suddenly pulled the car over, not carefully, but with a lurch and screech of tires. For a moment he clutched the wheel in silence, then pulled a bottle of gin from under the seat, and began to drink. It seemed he would never stop. I sat frozen, watching the sun through the green glass of the bottle. I had never seen him drink like that before. He put the bottle back and we drove on. HE drove. No one said anything. We were all too stunned.

By spring, Daddy was too sick to drive, so we couldn’t go back to Minnesota at the usual time. Daddy mostly lay in bed, but sometimes he wandered, too, and raved, and Mom had to lock him in his room. Once I helped her shave him, sick at the sight of his grey whiskers and hollow cheeks. Mother seemed dazed. She stopped cooking, so we scratched together meals on our own. The garden grew up to weeds.

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 hard to go from the security of Daddy’s world to the chaos of Mom’s. We moved back to Minnesota, and spent the next several winters trying to survive in a house meant only for summer. For the first time, we experienced hardship, and, sometimes, hunger. Mom had to go to work, and 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. I didn’t think of flowers for a long time.

It amazes me that all of us survived. Mom remarried–another alcoholic– and outlived him, too., independent in her own home to the end. After some false steps, all of us kids did OK. We even prospered, finding some security in an insecure world.

It turns out that our parents, before they fell apart, gave us some survival tools. They taught us to look, listen, and love the things they loved, books, ideas, and the natural world. They taught us the Latin names of plants. Most importantly, we learned that it’s good to start each day with a walk around the yard, to check out the flowers.

That lesson, especially, has stayed with me.

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