When the regional rail line was extended north, Carol Ann and her husband Bob decided it was time to move out of the city and their second-floor walk-up and out to the unincorporated hinterlands where new suburbs were being planned. They were tired of thin walls and hearing their downstairs’ neighbors squabble. They wanted more space, room to spread out, especially as Carol Ann was pregnant with their second child.
She surveyed the back acreage of the lot-and-a-half upon which their new house sat. The surrounding land was open, for the time being. It was an area once impacted by the Ice Age. Receding glaciers had left fields of moraine and mostly flat treeless prairie. She imagined what it must have been like for the early settlers. A tabula rasa upon which they worked from sun up to sun down draining the sloughs and farming the land. She thought about how all things must eventually pass, erode away and decay. She was the last of her line, originally a LaMott. Her father was brother to five sisters and she, Carol Ann, was an only child. She’d already lost her name and some day she’d be gone too, buried she supposed under that same prairie. Her thoughts often strayed toward morbidity when she was pregnant, a consequence of carrying life.
The house behind her was a one-story contemporary (presuming that the style would always be in vogue) with an attached garage. Bob designed the simple floor plan, having in mind adding on rooms as the family grew. She had met her husband while in college and dropped out soon after they became engaged. When the war erupted in the Pacific, Bob signed on, but was never sent to the front because of his feet—so flat they were like slabs. In basic training after quick-stepping eight miles he simply gave out. Instead he worked in a unit building prefabricated barracks. There was a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers downstate in Galesburg, Illinois. He oversaw that project as well as the dismantling of the shacks used to house Japanese internees in Alabama. After the war he started his own company. He was particularly proud of his fleet of twenty-foot trucks with “Hackles Construction” emblazoned on the cab doors. He built for Carol Ann a life, a home.
She instructed the landscapers, who were hurrying to finish the sodding before frost set in, to leave a patch bare. She had in mind a garden.
That first year it was all she could do to prepare the ground. Her first spade of dirt revealed black loam and an engorged earthworm cut in half. She got down on her hands and knees and kneaded the earth, breaking apart a clod. An aroma like baked bread warm from the oven wafted up to her. Soon she was engulfed in memories of growing up on her parent’s farm and the vegetable patch they used to keep. In a time of great poverty those few acres had sustained them. A blessing, her mother had declared. Times were different now, and Carol Ann decided she would grow flowers.
“Flowers!” Bob blurted. “Why bother, they only end up dying.” Not intending to deride her, he only wanted to protect her. With a toddler and a newborn, he was afraid she would exhaust herself. She hoed deep furrows while the baby slept in a baby seat propped up in a shady corner next to the side of the house and while three-year-old Bob Junior threw rocks at a fence post. Occasionally, the steel blade would chink, nick a stone—she dug up so many, they were as abundant as potatoes. After work one evening Bob pulled into the driveway with a gasoline-powered Roto-tiller in the bed of his truck, the spiral blades glinted as if throwing off sparks. He pitched in and helped her plant a windbreak of blue spruce on the northern edge of their property and agreed that a border of poplars along the back would offer much needed shade when the sun hovered on the western horizon. Only saplings, they would grow fast. That fall she set in one hundred tulip bulbs, ordered direct from Leiden, Holland.
The immense yard wasn’t hers alone. She shared the space with a swing set anchored into the ground and a carousel clothesline, the children’s initials etched into the cement base. To separate their play area from the garden she planted a hedge of forsythia and created a walkway. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of crushed limestone filled in a raised edge. Over the next couple of years she enlarged her tulip beds by adding crocuses, daffodils and grape hyacinths, the purples so lush she was tempted to eat them. By then she was pregnant again, carrying Teddy.
Always the sight of green blades pushing up through ice-rimed snow, tamped down by thawing and refreezing, revived her. Breathing in the biting air, she would tell herself that spring wasn’t far off. Indeed, a few weeks later while lumbering down the path she spied a baby bunny huddled beneath a clump of snowdrops.
The subdivision grew around them. The county came out and tore up part of the front lawn to widen the road and install sewer pipes. That summer Bob Junior and his group of friends climbed in and out of the big cement cylinders, playing hide-n-go-seek and GI Joe. Frequent storms hampered the roadwork and rain filled the recently dug trenches. One day as she was cutting back creeping phlox about to consume the walk, Carol Ann heard shouting and ran around the house to find Bobby’s friends peering into one of the holes. There he was at the bottom up to his neck in muddy water, screaming. They formed a chain and Carol Ann fished Bobby out only to spank his bottom and kiss his face.
After that, his father grounded him and Carol Ann made him haul and spread mulch. Perhaps it was then that Bobby came to see gardening as a type of punishment. Noonie also wasn’t much help. Occasionally Carol Ann asked her to keep an eye on little Teddy while she did a bit of weeding, but Noonie quickly forgot about her brother and let him wander. None of her children had an interest in watching things grow; none of them shared her passion.
In 1965 their house was picked for the Fall Home Tour. Carol Ann made dainty fours, baked a Lane Cake, and arranged zinnias and asters into vases—stunning reds, yellows, monarch orange, russet brown—as well as mums and coneflowers with beehive centers. Her garden was the talk of the Tour. It won an award and was even featured in the suburban newspaper.
An artist new to the area contacted Carol Ann; he worked in metal, welding what he called ‘found’ objects. He proposed a sculpture for the garden. Bob wasn’t so sure. There was at the time a battle raging at city hall regarding a controversial wall panel at the new library. It was unveiled and subsequently shrouded until further notice. Bob suggested that they ask for a design. That way if she didn’t like his concept then she wouldn’t have to pay.
After giving Emile the go-ahead and settling on a price, Carol Ann threw herself into transforming that part of the yard the swing set used to occupy into a classic garden. Next to a wall constructed from the stones pulled from the ground years before, she planted blue purple delphinium, lupine, gladiolus, and hollyhocks. Vines of ivory clematis spiraled up the wall and sunk its tentacles into the sandy mortar. Bob Junior home from college made a trellis for her climbing roses. She tied up a flamboyant variety called Mae West, a lurid lipstick red. The calla lilies bloomed extra large that summer, curvaceous and deep-throated, with an alabaster spathe and erect yellow spadix. Carol Ann sunk her face into them. Emile laughingly brushed pollen dust off her nose with his fingertips.
In mid-autumn the sculpture was done and installed. Carol Ann had been out running errands and came home physically wrought from dealing with traffic. The area was quickly getting built up. Not just housing developments but also shopping centers. Everywhere she looked it seemed there was concrete and asphalt. She drew a glass of water from the tap and looked out upon her garden—and there, casting rainbow colors—was a spiral of galvanized steel tubing. She stepped outside and down the walkway, the crunch crunch of gravel beneath her feet, and stopped in front of it. Even the titmouse and sparrow hushed in awe. Emile had been sitting cross-legged, silhouetted in the shade of a poplar. He got up and stood behind her. The tiger lilies swirled in the sun. It’s called Bird of Paradise, he said softly.
Later, she would go in for gentler, more subdued colors: mauve, melon, shades of pink, a mix of perennials, annuals, Queen Elizabeth roses, irises with tissue-thin petals, easily bruised.
By now Noonie was out of the house, eloped with a boy she’d met at the pool, and moved to California. Bob Junior was busy starting up a business and Teddy had joined the army. That winter was the worst; it seemed to last forever. Sunlight, when there was any, came sporadically in stray rays. Carol Ann caught a cold, which went to her chest. It hurt just to move. As a get-well present Bob assembled for her a mail-order greenhouse, a frame of metal with glass panes set in. Rubberized matting protected her feet from the cold ground. Every morning she’d wake up, drink her coffee, and putter around in the greenhouse—nearly fifteen degrees warmer than the rest of the house. There was a long workbench for re-potting, as well as shelves for her terracotta pots and plastic flats sectioned off for seeding. Petunias. Pansies. Cosmos. Marigolds. The flower packages alone were enough to raise her spirit, Victorian illustrations, sumptuous photographs, botanical and common names. When the weather outside was miserable, day barely breaking before succumbing to nightfall, she’d hardly notice, immersed within a minute world. Before leaving she’d cover her seedlings with plastic sheeting. In some ways they were her children, certainly easier to manage. Sometimes in the middle of the night she’d get up to check on them. Wind would rattle the panes, like teeth chattering. The arc street lamps streamed in, illuminating the crystallized patterns of frost formed on the inside of the greenhouse. It was there in the winter of ’69 that Bob came out to tell her they’d received a call. Teddy was dead. Shot down by snipers while patrolling an abandoned rubber plantation outside of Bien Hoa in Vietnam.
In the early 1970s Carol Ann added a Japanese garden. She’d been taking yoga at the Y for her lower back pain and thought the idea of reflecting pools, water lilies, and bonsai might bring relief. She wasn’t sleeping much lately. Bob’s construction company was booming, framing up houses in a new subdivision called Prairie Farm. They each had their own routine. Carol Ann special-ordered pea-size pebbles gray with blue threads, representative of the sea. She sought to simplify by applying the rules of feng shui to her garden. She pruned one of the blue spruces to resemble a flowing waterfall and shaped the shrubbery to look like waves. Water was supposedly good for her chi. She banished reds. Beside the pool was a weeping willow. Her hair had turned white after lying dormant for ages in a static state of dishwater blonde. Sitting in the garden at dusk all alone, she attempted to summon peace, wring it from the atmosphere. Nothing seemed to calm the ache; her tears fell like hydrangea blossoms all around.
Occasionally the kids would come to visit. Noonie, after several false starts all of which ended in divorce, came with her life partner, a man from Santa Fe who worked as a consultant. Carol Ann always felt a little tense when Bob Junior and his wife came over. He was oblivious to his kids running wild through the garden. They made mounds with the gravel and threw pebbles at the goldfish swimming in the pool. Little Madison begged for bouquets, but when Carol Ann clipped some for her she’d snap the heads off and scatter the petals in the yard. It was impossible to re-direct the children, as their mother didn’t want anyone else disciplining them.
One summer their oldest boy Bart came to stay with Carol Ann and Bob. As opposed to popular theories regarding birth order, he did not display traits of determination and self-assuredness. He was having a rough time of it in high school. According to Bob Junior he needed to stand up to the bullies who were tormenting him. While visiting, Bart got up early and helped Carol Ann in the garden. After a heavy dew, he observed that the flowers resembled jewels, sparkling like a lady’s necklace in the morning light. He lifted the head of a salmon-pink poppy and was enthralled when a spider emerged out of the black eye.
That same summer a terrible storm blew up. The day had started muggy. Even pouring a glass of sweet tea caused Carol Ann to break out in a sweat. Late afternoon she scanned the sky for a break in the weather. She called Bart out of the house to come look at a tower of clouds, the color of an avocado. A stave of lightning impaled the horizon immediately followed by a contusive boom and then the faint odor of a burnt-out motor. Across the field came a sudden updraft, a burst of chilled air. “Come inside NOW,” Bart shouted. He grabbed his grandma’s hand and together they hurried inside and crouched behind a couch away from the windows. The drumbeat of hail on the roof and hood of the car filled their ears and heart.
Afterwards, they went out to the garden to assess the damage. Lashed and beheaded stalks lay crumpled and bent in two. The lacy baby’s breath, purple statice, and daylilies were a total loss. Pompom blossoms of the Persian onion littered the ground. The roses were in tatters. Carol Ann’s legs quivered. She and Bart cleared away pellets of ice and picked up twigs and stray debris. Bob came in from the Prairie Farm site and said I-94 was blocked off by the exit. Apparently a twister had touched down not more than four miles away. He sought to console Carol Ann. “I’ll make waffles for dinner.”
On the last evening before Bart was to leave, Carol Ann got up to check on him and found his bed empty. Bright moonlight lit up the counterpane bedspread sprawled onto the floor. In a panic she raced to the window and saw a shadow glide along the garden wall. Outside, the warm night air betrayed a hint of fall. September and school were right around the corner. Crickets chirred a concert within the crannied wall. Already the garden showed signs of staging a valiant comeback. Carol Ann still hadn’t gotten her panic under control; she was anxious for a number of reasons. Suddenly she thought about Teddy and felt guilty. Not sure why, just wished she had loved him more when he was alive.
In a corner of the garden she came upon Bart wearing only his sleeping shorts. He sat on his haunches and rocked back and forth, sobbing. Carol Ann came over to him and draped her arms around his shoulders. They stayed there awhile in the dew-jeweled moonlight, listening to the rise and fall of insect voices.
Jane Hertenstein asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work