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The Stories

Steal Magnolias

I’d just started my run when I saw them standing at the end of the street.  Two stout women wearing Capri pants and flip flops smiling stupidly at a sweating man bent over and struggling with a shovel.  I registered them, but only slightly, as I was more concerned with the enormous uprooted boxwood that blocked the walk in front of their house.  Unable to easily pass I glared at them for cluttering up the sidewalk like that, a public sidewalk, and forcing me to cross the street.  For the next mile I only dimly registered what I had seen:  man with shovel hacking at the roots of the shrubs in a neighbor’s front yard, two women who for some reason looked to be in it for the long haul, and that yard filled with a lovely variety of old shrubbery, boxwoods, azaleas and spruce, that were as old as the house itself.  I cursed them generically for inconveniencing me without the benefit of knowing anything about their project and didn’t allow myself to wonder more about what they were doing.  As more distance got between us I eventually forgot what I had seen.

Until that evening when I remembered.  Getting ready for a walk with my mother around our neighborhood I suddenly recalled the man with the shovel and his murder of the boxwood and I told her about it.  “You know the house across from the stone church?”  I asked her.  “Some guy was out there taking up bushes earlier today.  The big boxwoods out front.  I wonder what they were doing?”  My mother immediately raised her eyebrows in a combination of outrage and alarm, a look that I both knew and shared.  The neighborhood I live in is the neighborhood I grew up in.  Over the past decade we’d seen our older neighbors, many of whom had lived in their houses since they were first built, die or move into nursing homes, and younger people come in and take over.  In a certain sense that’s just the way things go, the old people disappear, the young people fill the void; my husband and I had done that too.  But as much as I hated the loss of the white haired men with those odd beige overalls that men of a certain age are fond of and the old German lady who always praised the stoutness of my children I came to miss the loss of the yards nearly as much.    Because without fail whenever somebody young moved into one of our neighbor’s houses the first thing they did was dig up the yard. 

The first time I witnessed this sort of destruction was at the house directly across the street from mine.  Reading on my back porch one day I saw the young woman who had just moved in and an older lady push a wheelbarrow through the yard and spread out a variety of gardening tools.  “Well, that’s nice.”  I thought to myself, momentarily relieved that they were the type of neighbors that seemed to take an interest in their yard, would properly mow the grass and trim the hedges and keep things tidy, neighborly traits I appreciate.  My relief lasted as long as it took for them to get down on their knees and one by one begin to rip out by the roots the tulips and lilies and daffodils that had only the week before stopped blooming.  From there they moved onto the phlox that draped over the brick edgers and took a chainsaw to the boxwoods and azaleas that had stood sentry under the front windows since the house was first built.  I sat all that day and the next watching them move from one part of the yard to the next undoing in moments what it had taken nature decades to assemble.  While walking the dog one evening that week my mother approached the young woman who had done this terrible thing and very casually and very gently and using different words asked “Why in the world did you do this terrible thing?” to which the young woman replied that her husband had once owned his own landscaping business and so was really excited to have his own yard to work on.  His masterwork was a handful of annual bedding plants that were apparently meant as a replacement to the grand old flowering shrubs.  They lived there two years and then moved away. 

Another neighbor on a different corner did much the same thing and I’ll always remember the old gentleman who shared a property line with them mourning the loss of a particular camellia bush that was as large as a VW hatchback.  “Who does such a thing?”  He’d asked of no one in particular when he’d taken a break from his walk one evening to say hello.  His wife had been my elementary school principal, she had passed just a year before and he would join her not long afterwards.  As crummy as I felt watching the dismantling of our neighborhood I knew he had to have felt worse;  he’d been here longer than any of us and knew even better how easy it was for things to slip away. 

And so I found myself that night on my nightly walk around the neighborhood with my mother gaping in horror at the house I had run past earlier in the day.  Where I had seen only a single boxwood before the sidewalk was now filled across the entire front stretch of the house.  Joining the boxwoods were azaleas, most of which still had blooms on them and for some unknowable reason a whole spruce tree hacked up at the roots.  The yard was completely clear of any type of bush or tree or shrub and you could see the stray sticks and pieces of root that had refused to let go of the ground and had obviously given the man with the shovel some grief.  I had a flashback to the wrinkled old gray haired lady who had lived in that house when I was a child.  She was not pleasant and she would stand next to her boxwoods and yell with futility at the children who played in the church yard across from her.  I never understood why it bothered her that children would play in an empty field, but it did. 

The more recent old man that had lived there had taken exceptional pride in the bushes.  He’d manicured the boxwoods to be completely flat on the top and with crisp edges on the sides so that they looked like strange green tables placed at random around the yard.  They were bizarre looking but I appreciated their whimsy.  Eventually, as he got more infirmed he hired people to maintain them and they returned to the more traditional roundish boxwood shape.  For a long time though he’d wheel himself out in his wheelchair and would trim them with clippers by hand smoking one of the cigarettes that would eventually kill him.  Now, my mother and I walking the sidewalk in front of his house, the whole place had a disjointed feel, like a face that was missing a nose.  There were no boxwoods left at all, neither table shaped nor round, their corpses lined the avenue.

We fumed, and not silently.  The people who had most recently moved into the house were not home but if they had been we would not have been quieter.  My mother and I were outraged and loud about it, the most common idea being “Why?”  Why would anyone want to destroy such beautiful things that had been growing for so long?  Why do people move into an old neighborhood like ours and make one of their first chores getting rid of something that has been there longer than they will ever be?  What sort of human arrogance so casually annihilates every growing thing in a yard all at once?  Cutting down a problem tree is one thing.  Or a random bush you think is ugly.  And technically when you own a house you can do with it whatever the hell you want to do with it, but how unfortunate that a person would ever so easily discard decades and decades of history and nature.  How does someone neglect the reality that we share our visual spaces with our neighbors and that because you signed a mortgage paper on the dotted line does not absolve you of your responsibility to those shared spaces?  It’s something I just don’t get and my mother just doesn’t get either and so we cursed more than we should have and we wondered aloud at why some people even bother moving to old neighborhoods when it’s clear they would be much happier in a new subdivision out in Forest where there are no trees or shrubs to get in the way.  We went on like this for awhile until I looked down and saw the pretty red azalea with the fully intact root ball.

“I’m taking this one home.  It still has blooms on it for god’s sake.  Those animals.  How could they have murdered them all like this?  This is my bush now.  Hold my phone for me.”  Still in my running clothes I had no pockets and so I handed my mother my phone.  At the end of the line I had spotted a forlorn red azalea still at the peak of its spring bloom that had been spared the complete destruction of its root system.  I stood there for a moment looking at the thing and puzzling through how exactly I would get my hands around the branches in a way that would make it possible to carry it the block and a half back to my house.  Three foot tall azalea bushes with intact root systems are both heavy and unwieldy and I did my best to carry it in a way that didn’t mess it up more or slice my hands and arms to pieces.  We started our walk back home, stopping every couple of houses so I could readjust by grip, my mother still spewing forth indignities at the jackasses who had ruined that grand old yard but also now laughing at me struggling under the weight of my shrub, because really, this is something we do.

Years before my mother dragged home a nandina from a pile that had been unceremoniously hacked to pieces from what was previously one of the most beautifully landscaped yards on the street.  She nursed it back to life and it still looks good unlike the rose bush that she recovered that same night from the same pile.  The rose bush didn’t make it.  Notoriously, my Aunt Dot, my grandmother’s sister, after spotting an especially lovely batch of lavender which edged a neighbors front sidewalk mentioned to my mother one evening while visiting that she would love to have a piece of that and did my mother think it would be a big deal to take a bit of it back home with her?  My mother felt certain it would be fine, there were two rows of the stuff, growing a little bit wild along the walkway and she felt confident a little wouldn’t be missed.  It was only when Aunt Dot waited until well after dark and threw on a robe over her pajamas grabbing my father’s spade and a bucket that my mother grew concerned.  Aunt Dot got piles and piles of the stuff in the dark of night to take back home with her to plant in her own yard and somehow she left no trace of the theft.  The next day the walkway looked the same as it ever had.  A couple of years later a young couple bought that house and within 48 hours of moving in they took a shovel to the entire line and never filled it back in with anything.  Now weeds and straw grass grow where the lavender once did.  The young couple has two children.   I’ve never once seen any of them outside.  My mother and I on the other hand walk by that spot every night and I’m confident that each of us in our own way gives that lavender, and our dear Aunt Dot, a silent moment of remembrance each time we pass.

My mother’s stepmother, Louise, a woman who before her passing had forgotten more about flowers and plants and things that bloom than most people will ever know called my mother once for a favor.  “Honey, can you come dig a little hole for me?  I’ve got something to put in it and I can’t quite work the shovel as good as I used to.”  Well into her 80s at that point and knowing that if someone didn’t dig the hole for her she would do it herself we went to help.  I say “we” though I knew full well the only reason I was going at all was to dig the hole for them.  When we got there Louise led us to a spot behind her house, only a little bit shaky at that point and still fully in command of her ability to command she pointed us to an enormous pink azalea.  The root ball was at least three feet across.  A little hole, indeed.  She stood there, arms crossed, stage directing me the entire time I worked at the shovel.  When, finally, the hole was deep enough I dragged and then hoisted the enormous bush over into it and filled it back in with dirt.  She seemed pleased with my effort, though I’m certain she thought she could have done better herself were she younger and more able.  She was terribly happy that she’d been able to save that bush that someone else had thrown out and her efforts were worth it as the bush lived a long time after that.  Driving back by her house after she died my mother noticed that one of Louise’s daughters had dug it up for herself and taken it away.  I hope wherever it is it continues to bloom simply because so many people wanted it to. 

I dug the hole for my new azalea the way I dig every hole:  round with super straight sides like the archaeologist I used to be would dig them.  I feel comfortable with a spade in my hand, punching into the ground and then slicing off pieces section by section until it is as deep and wide as I need it.  Once it was the right size for my rescued azalea, whose leaves and flowers were only just beginning to droop (it had weathered its night out of the ground pretty well all things considered) I plopped it inside and filled up the hole with the dirt my husband had tilled and mixed with compost the day before.  I had picked a spot in the yard next to a set of three bushes he had transplanted three different times while he was putting an addition on the house.  It would have been simpler to have just dragged those three bushes to the curb for the city to pick up rather than dig three separate giant holes two different times for bushes that might not even make it.  But he did it because he couldn’t stomach the idea of throwing out so casually something alive just because they were unlucky enough to be in an inconvenient place.  They seemed to reward his trouble by being fuller and greener than they’d ever been before.

When my daughter saw the azalea sitting in the driveway the morning after I dragged it home I explained to her where it had come from and she looked horrified.  She pointed to the row of ancient boxwoods and shrubs in front of our own house and said “You mean it’s like if somebody came in and cut down all of those bushes?  Ones that have been there forever?”  In her mind “forever” being what her ten year old brain can physically understand, the permanence of the world around her being simplified to people and things she can see and touch and remember.  I was pleased at both the indignity of the question and the look on her face when I told her “Yes.”   “That’s terrible.”  She said simply.  And I agreed. 

I hope my bush lives but I know it might not.  It’s enough though that I tried to save it.  I live, for better or worse, with one foot in the past and one in the now which makes my life more melancholy that it sometimes needs to be but I can’t help it.  I despise the egotism that allows a person to feel it’s okay to toss out something both older and more beautiful than they are when we are the temporary ones, our lives by necessity the flicker of a flame.  And I take comfort in the thought that the women before me have also had that soft spot for the relative permanence of things that grow.  I hope my children live their lives that way too.  Because I’m fairly confident that one day I’ll call one and ask that they come dig me a little hole or else I’ll visit them where they live with their own families and children and I’ll ask if I can borrow a spade and when I put on my robe over my pajamas and head out into the dark of the night I hope they know better than to stop me.  

Jenny PooreComment