Mama and Daddy were both children of a generation of hardscrabble farmers who had toughed it out on tenant farms through the Great Depression. The land had fed their families, barely, and had offered few rewards. My mother hated milk but made us drink it. She said she couldn't taste it without remembering the thin, unpasteurized milk she drank as a child from her family's cow. If the cow grazed in a field of wild onion, the milk came out greenish and smelly.
Growing things held no interest for either of them in the hopeful, upwardly mobile years of their early marriage, when the neighborhood grocer offered fat beef fillets, individually wrapped in butcher paper and they could afford them. Our regulation bluegrass lawns were never interrupted by a flower bed, a vegetable bed or a shrub unless someone else had planted them there first.
Naturally, they raised a daughter who turned out to be a plant fanatic.
Daddy's father enjoyed growing a kitchen garden, a patch of tobacco and a small crop of corn in his later years, and his sister Ida loved to tend to her grapevine. The first flower I ever identified was a sweet pea, picked from the fence row of Aunt Ida's garden. She told me its name, and I picked bowls full of the spicy-scented, pastel blossoms, making a bed for my paper dolls, a carpet, a wedding bouquet.
My favorite aunts and cousins were those who grew things -- bushels of pole beans in the summer, tender field peas in leathery purple pods, tomatoes with tight, translucent skin and warm, red flesh. At dusk, they sat in lawn chairs with bowls in their laps, snapping and stringing peas and beans until the lightning bugs rose from the damp grass and it was time to go in. My favorite book was a cardboard-backed animal tale of some hungry little squirrels who couldn't help but gorge themselves on their grandmother's lush garden, then returned at night to replenish the vines with groceries they bought at the store. The story was meaningless, but the illustrations of the thick vines, dripping with blossoms and fruit and vegetables, were irresistible.
A few years back, when Daddy was sick with cancer but hadn't yet told anyone how sick, I sent him a potted amaryllis bulb at Christmas. He was a tough one to buy gifts for, never really liked anything, so we usually gave him chocolate or a ham, something that would last and would eventually go down easy, even if it didn't bring him much pleasure.
But the amaryllis was a hit. I called him regularly to see how his dialysis was going, and to see if he would give me any hints about his real physical condition. He didn't want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the mysterious growth of the amaryllis stem, emerging from the moss-covered bulb now as if by magic.
"That plant you sent me's the most amazing thing I've ever seen," he said. "I swear, you leave the room and come back and it's grown another inch."
When the circle of huge, waxy blossoms the color of red Revlon lipstick finally erupted atop the thick stem a few days later, he was flabbergasted.
"I never saw anything like it," he said. "Those flowers are huge. They just keep on coming." I'm pretty sure my father had never loved a flower before, but this was the real thing. The amaryllis was something he came to every day to watch in wonder. I told him how to keep it alive and how to nourish the bulb so that it would bloom again next winter, but he didn't want to hear that either. He just wanted to relish the glory of this spectacular blooming marvel.
Later that year he died, but not before recounting again the miracle of the amaryllis many times over.
Last Christmas I sent his widow two potted amaryllis bulbs since she had seemed to enjoy them as much as Daddy did. She had moved to a new apartment, and I was worried that the postman might not find her. But a month or so later I came home from work and punched the button on my answering machine to find an excited message from her. The amaryllis had arrived, she had watered it, and it had performed its spectacular growing routine again.
"It's just the neatest thing," she gushed. "It reminded me of your daddy and how he'd say, Oh, I hope Kathe makes it here before it stops blooming so she can see it."
I didn't make it in time, but when I see the hollyhocks I planted last year towering over the mailbox this year, their buds swelling, the thick stems growing inches a day, I think of the amaryllis and what it means to love a flower. The flower asks for nothing but gives back pure joy -- and sometimes, a rare moment of unexpected grace.