Tag: Desert Rose

So Long, Old Friend

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“Just wanted to tell you that Millie passed away.

She was ninety-nine years old. What a life.”

Tom and I received this text today from Kathy, a close friend and neighbor who lived two doors north of us in Mount Prospect, Illinois. The community was our home until July 2017.

Millie, another of our neighbors, was an ever-enduring matriarch. She lived one block over. Directly behind us for two decades. Evidently, she died a few days ago.

I remember Millie fondly, tending to her flowers along the back fence. She was one part avid gardener and rose lover, one part suburban dynamo, one part cantankerous character.

Millie left a lasting impression on my family and me. So much so that I wrote Along the Back Fence, an essay about her and our relationship. It became a chapter in An Unobstructed View, my book of reflections on the meaning of my Illinois life.

Millie didn’t quite make it to her one hundredth birthday, which would have occurred in early January. But as a tribute to her and long-lasting neighbors everywhere who enrich our lives, I choose to celebrate as if she had.

Here’s my story and an image of a rose I captured across the sidewalk in another neighbor’s yard in sunny Arizona.

So long, old friend.

***

Along the Back Fence

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence. But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it—too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess. So when she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had too much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here and there as I pushed my mower around my yard and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage. Eventually, we broke the ice.  From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. On one summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis. Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from their home on the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature dish of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents—Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015. But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health—her own sure-footedness—declined.

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby. Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I reached out to give her a hug as she leaned in to rest her head on my shoulder. She told me she still loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it any more. Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from the side of her garage and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too. It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush—which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire—took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

 

 

To Stand Tall

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The world has gone mad. Last week, I felt it personally.

***

On Monday at the gym, bully #1 sprayed venomous, hateful words at me in a weight-lifting room. He claimed I had usurped his space on a bench. He was wrong. It was vacant when I stepped in briefly. At any rate, I was smart enough to walk away from someone far more muscular.

I was also scared enough to recognize old wounds from my adolescence … bullying and humiliation in middle school hallways and locker rooms by larger, straighter, nastier boys who wielded the “F” word and ruled by physical intimidation without adult supervision.

Before I left the gym, I reported the incident to an employee. A few minutes later the reality of what had happened hit me. I cried in the car with my husband Tom by my side.

***

On Saturday at the local market, Tom and I had just bought scented soaps from a vendor. She’s a friend and single mother. I hugged her, knowing her children will be leaving soon for the summer to spend time with their dad.

Before we left, I stopped at a booth to enter my friend’s name in a Mother’s Day drawing. That’s when it happened. “Are you a mother?” bully #2 asked rhetorically. She covered the entry box with both hands and shook her head.

“No, I’m not,” I replied. “But a friend is. I’d like to enter her name in the contest.”

She scolded me. “Vendors aren’t allowed to participate.”

With all the sarcasm I could muster, I glared back and thanked her for “the pleasurable experience of meeting her.” My hair was on fire. I stomped away. Tom stayed long enough to tell bully #2 and her manager how rude they were. We both wondered if they would have treated us the same if we’d been a straight couple.

***

On Sunday, Tom and I missed our mothers. They both died several years ago. Naturally, we still feel the weight of grief. We always will on Mother’s Day. To find solace, we hiked to the Desert Botanical Garden in the morning. It’s one of our favorite spots to be alone with our thoughts. To see the cacti and succulents bloom. To watch the quail and ground squirrels skitter. To escape our worries and get lost in nature.

As we walked along a path, a six-or-seven-year-old boy and his extended family approached us. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he shouted gleefully. “Thank you. Same to you,” I responded with gusto. Instantly, the child stole my heart on a garden path in the desert. At least for a few moments, he renewed my faith in humanity.

Before Tom and I left the garden, we stopped to buy a desert rose. I wanted to pay tribute to my wise, garden-loving mother by planting new life in the sun on our back patio with two similar roses. I wanted to give us hope that one day we’ll live in a world with stronger leaders, who have greater compassion and desire to help protect young children like the one who greeted us with unbridled joy. Leaders who will fight against bullying, rather than foster it.

Until then, I need this third desert rose to remind me to remain true to myself. To continue performing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus, as I did on Saturday night at a benefit for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. To speak my mind as a concerned American, husband, father, son, neighbor, and gay man.  To stand tall in a world gone mad.

Desert Rose: December Memories

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In a world that overvalues youth, immediacy and hashtags (and undervalues history, longevity and sentiment), I sometimes fear that memoirs will vanish one day soon. That no one will care about the past, what we might learn from it, and what it means to us. Still, I continue to share my stories, because I believe we grow as human beings by remembering where we came from and how these experiences inform our present lives.

Last week, I wrote about my fascination with desert rose plants and their beautiful blooms. This story goes deeper than my Arizona life. Decades deeper. Back to my childhood in St. Louis and beyond. Back to my mother and father, when they were newlyweds living in Texas in the late 1940s.

As Christmas approaches and my new desert rose plant lies dormant in my Arizona home, the time is right to share my earliest desert rose memories from the 1960s and the sense of renewal this beautiful succulent represents in my life.

Following is an excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of stories about my Missouri youth. This is one of my sweetest December recollections.

*   *   *

With the disruptions at home, my parents had too much on their plates and seldom played host and hostess on holidays. The one exception was Christmas Day dinner. That’s when they threw caution to the wind annually; when Mom poured highballs for our hardest drinking guests; when a layer of cigarette and cigar smoke bellowed and hung across our living room; when Mom cooked roast beef, whipped potatoes and gravy, and some sort of green vegetable to present a “balanced meal;” when she reached into the kitchen cupboard for her favorite dinnerware; when–best of all–she proudly displayed the place settings of Franciscan Desert Rose she and Dad received as wedding gifts in 1948.

While Mom’s meal was in the oven, I helped her swing open the leg of our maple dining room table and insert a few leaves to accommodate our house guests: Thelma, Ralph, Harry, Violet,  Phyllis, Vic, Virginia, Vickie and Lib–and a few other aging relatives and friends who had nowhere else to go. Then, between intermittent checks of her roast, she took laps around the dining room, setting each place with utensils and napkins, and adding the Desert Rose plates, cups, and saucers.

I don’t think I was a tremendous help to her as she set the table, but I remember seeing a far off glint in Mom’s eyes as she examined and caressed each plate. I know she treasured her embossed earthenware. Introduced by Gladding, McBean and Company in 1941, Franciscan Desert Rose was one of the best-selling dinnerware lines of the 1940s. Perhaps it reminded her of a simpler time … when she and Dad were newlyweds preparing to move to Texas where his dry goods sales job was taking them … when they had lighter hopes, greater dreams, more time, and a sparkling set of dinnerware to frame lovingly-prepared meals with new friends and acquaintances.

Whatever the case, the classic design of the Desert Rose–the pink rose with a yellow center and a green-leaf border–dressed up Mom’s holiday table and brought a hint of beauty into an otherwise chaotic world.

Over the decades, several plates, cups and saucers were chipped or broken. I don’t know what happened to the remaining pieces of my parents’ Desert Rose dinnerware, but my husband and I have bought a few Desert Rose plates in the past few years, whenever we discover them on a random shelf in a Midwestern antique shop. They remind me of my happiest holiday memories and that fleeting, wistful look I saw on my mother’s face each year on Christmas Day.

*   *   *

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, as 2018 winds down, I encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on your favorite childhood memories. And, most of all, I wish you peace and good health in 2019. I hope you realize your desert rose dreams and witness the power of renewal in the coming year.

 

 

Desert Rose: December Dreams

 

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Several years before our cross-country move and 2017 whirlwind adventure that led to An Unobstructed View, my husband and I were snowbirds. We flocked annually to the Arizona desert to escape portions of Chicago’s frigid winters and snowy springs.

One April, I remember being dazzled by the bright red blooms on the desert rose plants (adeniums) at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We vowed that once we moved permanently and got settled, we’d buy one of these beautiful succulents and place it in a container in a sunny spot outside our condo.

We made good on that promise in October. We bought this adenium at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale. Now our new addition is losing its leaves. It’s dormant. It will remain that way until March, when the growing season takes flight.

This morning, I felt a little like our desert rose looks when I walked past it … out of sorts and disheveled in early December … craving quiet time as the busy Christmas season approaches … hoping for another spurt of growth and creativity in the new year … wondering where my next inspiration will come from.

For now, I’ll do my best to lie dormant. I’ll keep dreaming of new blooms in my Arizona life.