Philip Henderson, you don’t know it but you walked across my stage and initiated the climactic turning point the plot of my play hinged upon, the one I’d been reaching and reaching for these past 12 years. Alas, this starring role came at a price, however, and that price was 45 minutes of your time. Though I don’t know you, there were apparently a great many things I needed to tell you about myself. Cornering you for 45 minutes turned out to be the exact amount of time necessary to produce the exquisite self-mortification required to force the crucial discovery I’d been searching for.
To you, I was an unknown middle-aged woman who showed up in your yard early one Saturday morning while you stood outside enjoying a quiet cup of coffee while talking on the phone with your wife. I found you tucked around the corner from the driveway, right outside your back door. Because you were talking on the phone, you looked at me with a question mark in your eye like who are you and can’t you see I’m busy, but I just kept standing there waiting for you to get off the phone as if I were the next customer in a checkout line, making the fact of my patient presence entirely reasonable and customary. You finally said to your wife someone is in our yard and you’d call her back in a minute. But, as you now know, that did not happen for quite some time.
Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to end up in back of your house, telling you so many things. I was just out on my standard walk thinking my usual thoughts and solving the occasional problem. To that end, not 5 minutes before I had managed to work out what to do about the fact that I’d bought a 5-foot trellis for a rose that would climb 10 feet, a trellis I’d stubbornly bought anyway because it was a beautiful free-standing forged iron sort of thing that could double as a piece of artwork. (In fact, I’m overblowing the sculpture potential, and it’s only forged iron in my mind.)
Over the course of the 2 days it took for this trellis to ship, I’d fallen into visualizing these 5 feet as more like 7 or 8 so as to help myself feel harmonious about this purchase. It arrived at a solid 5 — a very short woman, in other words. The rose, however, was already growing like a teenage boy. But fortuitously, as I said, the solution for this height conflict had come to me not 2 blocks from your house, Philip, and the solution was this: I would find a smaller climber for my 5-foot trellis and would build a 10-foot trellis out of twigs for my big growing boy. I just had to find a good supply of tall sticks since my yard had just been cleared of brush.
And then, lo and behold, I came upon an enormous — and I mean enormous — pile of brush alongside the driveway of the house that had sold just a few weeks before. I could see the new owner had been very busy the past week. The entire backyard had been cleared of all the scraggled growth the old lady who’d lived there before couldn’t keep up with. Here was my twig trellis. It was providence.
What’s more, as luck would have it, this new owner was right there in the yard with his cup of coffee, enjoying the early morning quiet while no doubt admiring his impressive tree work, when I ventured into his space and stood there before him. Your fortuitous availability, providence again.
While you wrapped up with your wife, I started working out a succinct way to make my request. But instead of simply saying hey, I’m wondering if I could have a few of your tall branches to make a trellis, what came out of my mouth instead was a story that started at the very beginning, way across town in my neighborhood with the problem of my 5-foot trellis and my 10-foot rose and how I had walked miles trying to figure this one out when not 3 minutes before — just 2 blocks back to be exact — it had come to me: a twig trellis. I would build a twig trellis! I’d built one before, back when I did a tremendous amount of gardening, a whole lifetime ago, as it happened. And just as I was trying to figure out where I might procure my twig material, I came upon your magnificent pile!
I said all this, every last bit. My straightforward request had taken on the big, exciting build of an epic tale equal in scale to your pile of brush.
And Philip, you tolerated this surprisingly well for an interrupted person. Perhaps you enjoyed for a moment being cast in the role of tree hero with the chance to talk about your hard work, an opportunity which I had immediately encouraged with nosy questions about how you had accomplished this clear cutting in such a short amount of time, which I knew for a fact to be the case in that I’d been by the week before. This is my regular walk, you see, and by regular I mean every Saturday and Sunday like clockwork, so I knew for a fact there had been no brush clearing work of any kind last weekend. After we got that ground covered and I had sufficiently appreciated your yard work stamina, then I needed to know your plans, because surely you had something in mind for this glorious back yard. Just look at this space you’d opened up.
You indulged this curiosity and took me around, saying open-ended things like you thought some shrubs might go alongside this fence and perhaps a few small ornamental trees here and here and here, which only served to open up a great gushing torrent of suggestions on my part for an ornamental this and an ornamental that and how I’m a big fan of the fringe-leaf Japanese maples, red or green, my absolute favorite, and how nothing is more interesting to me than a tapestry of colors and textures composed entirely of trees and shrubs, more Zen than English garden, though I don’t have the moderation myself to deny flowers, because, oh my, there are certain color combos that I can’t do without in the ways shrubs and flowers can be combined, like the deep maroon- red barberry or the almost raisin-like black ninebark with undertones of red, these purplish sort of dark red hues then spectacularly offset with a splash of orange, even a humble day lily. Or blue. Put a delphinium next to that dark purple red and then behind it all a tall, architectural spray of thalictrum to create an airy mist in the palest of lavender, almost white. Thalictrum. I’m so pleased with myself for how I managed to pull the Latin out from the dusty corners of my mind, even while knowing full well thalictrum is a shade plant and wouldn’t work at all in this sunny context. But look how that Latin made me sound!
Awareness, forcing its way through this thicket of bullshit, implored me to get off the plant talk, so I hustled in a comment about how I’d always liked this house you had just bought. You said it needed a lot of work but that would be fun. By the way, did I happen to know anyplace to get some landscaping rocks? Oh boy, here we go.
Well, you see, a whole lifetime ago when I was married — (uh oh, had I already used that line? A whole lifetime ago is kind of a set piece phrase with me) — and lived in Holden on 10 acres, I’d had access to a lot more money for gardens and plant material by virtue of an inheritance from my former husband’s grandmother. We’d had a beautiful rock wall built around a garden which swept so gracefully from the front of the house to the back in a serpentine sort of way, I said, demonstrating this graceful shape with sweeping, dancer-like hand gestures. Mitchell’s had done ours (bragger), but you could buy a supply of stone yourself at Granville Lumber for a DIY project. And for plant material? Oh my gosh, Surry Gardens was the best. In fact, that’s where we’d gotten a gorgeous Camperdownii elm — sometimes called an umbrella tree — are you familiar? It has such an interesting habit — very drape-y in a structured sort of way with almost spade-shaped leaves. It is just such a distinctive tree and there is a very beautiful display right outside Camden — a huge inn called The Norumbega right on the water. It is worth a trip.
Oh my god! Stop talking! I watched all this unroll in horror. Trying to re-direct, I asked if you were new to Bangor. In fact, you’d just moved from Cincinnati. Cincinnati!! You’re kidding!!! I was born there! What a coincidence! You get momentarily excited, asking me where in the city I lived and if I knew such-and-such a place at which point I had to admit I’d only lived there a year as a newborn baby so I knew it not at all, but what brought you to Bangor? Your wife, you said, who was just finishing up her pediatric gastroenterology residency. She would be coming along in the next couple of weeks to take a position at Northern Light Health.
Northern Light Health! That’s where I work! Where I’m the wellness person (as in one-and-only), so, ha ha isn’t that funny, I will be showing up regularly in your wife’s inbox with all my wellness-y publications which I send out to the entire system (as in more than 12,000 people)! I do this especially popular thing called Wellness Wednesday which clinical folks even sometimes use with their patients, so, ha ha, there might be something your wife could use!
It doesn’t stop. I touch down on random topics. Chain saws came up. Somehow my five grandchildren did, as well. I managed to work in the fact that two of them are half Egyptian due to the fact that my daughter fell in love with an Egyptian while going to school in Cairo during a volatile 5-year span of time which just happened to encompass the Arab Spring revolutions, the second one of which occurring just two blocks from where she lived.
By the time I took myself back down the driveway I’d told you a great many things having to do with me, including the property tax my “partner” and I pay on our house way across town, making a special point to work in the male pronoun so you’d understand how the gender ambiguity question plays out, even though I don’t want to be the sort of person uncomfortable with gender ambiguity and am not (though it is interesting) except when the ambiguity has to do with me. I also put substantial emphasis on way across town, because you should know I’m the sort of wellness person who walks a great many miles (not all that many), with every single one of those return miles that day in a deep mortification that started before I’d even stepped off your property.
Trudging down your driveway, the hideous replay was already revving up. Architectural spray of thalictrum. Especially popular Wellness Wednesday. Access to plant material money. Lifetime ago x2. My property tax for god’s sake! This phantom voice would dog me all the way home, all those many, many wellness-y miles trudged all the way back over there across town.
What, I wondered, am I supposed to do with myself.
Hang on; the discovery is coming. To be continued in Stage, Part II.