Tendrils to the Heart

For Father's Day, a flowering vine and reconciliation.

[A Newsday article reprinted and distributed by GreenPrints.]

I was going back home for Father’s Day and I didn’t have a present, so I wandered around a mall, looking at ties and wallets and shirts. It all looked so anonymous, just the way I feel when I’m with my father. I never hit it off with him. He likes my oldest brother best, my sister next, my second brother after that. Then me.

I can’t stand feeling anonymous. So I went into a boutique and tried on a white jump suit I’d seen in the window. It looked better on the mannequin, so I stuck my hip out and shot an arm up in the air. That was more like it, but I really couldn’t walk around like that. I put my old clothes back on, pondering the father problem. Maybe a new recording of one of his favorite double concertos. (Thank you, he’d say. Let’s compare it to my Shostakovich recording, the finest man in the world.) OK. How about some fine cheese? (Very good, he’d say. But remember that Stilton your brother used to bring down from Manhattan?) Have some more, Dad. Great for the arteries.

Could I knit a sweater vest overnight? My sister made a purple martin birdhouse one year. (I swear, he said, that girl can do anything she puts her mind to.)

I left the mall, sans present for Dad.

The problem is our minds do not run along the same lines. We are not kindred spirits. We do not sit for hours at the kitchen table-as do my mother and I-smoking forbidden cigarettes and allowing our mistakes in life to take a philosophical tum. So I’d probably end up with the usual shirt that said nothing and_everything about our relationship. The thought almost sent me into a roadside deli for a bag of extra thick rippled potato chips, but I pulled into my favorite local nursery instead. The wind was moving through the trees. No Muzak. A young man in old cutoffs and flip-flops was watering the vegetable seedlings and annuals with one of those rose attachments I wanted for my hose. We started talking about whether it w as too hot to grow kale, and out of nowhere an image from the past floated up: a vigorous vine overflowing with big purple flowers, planted by my father to camouflage a telephone pole at the edge of our yard.

“Do you have any clematis?” I asked. We examined the ones he had: Comtesse de Bouchard, a rose pink with cream-colored stamens; Duchess of Edinburgh, with rosette-shaped double white blooms; C. jackmanii, a velvety purple. But I knew what I wanted: sweet autumn clematis (C. paniculata), a fragrant white flower that lasts through October. He had one tucked away in the greenhouse.

“Good choice,” he said, with an appreciative look.

I left with my Father’s Day present, feeling beautiful, and headed for Maryland the next day. Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, I watered my clematis out of Burger King cups and kept an eye on its little leaves through the rearview mirror. Don’t worry, Clem, I whispered. If he doesn’t like you, I’ll take you back. We crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and hit the sweet humid air of the mid-Atlantic states.

I grew up on a farm surrounded by other fonns, fields of corn and soybeans, and a herd of fat black Angus fenced in with hedges of wild rose. My Grandfather was one fo thirteen; he built the farmhouse when his own family outgrew the wooden cabin down by the spring. Family legend tells how Granddad saved the farm during the Depression by selling produce to wealthy Baltimoreans from his horse cart. They couldn’t get enough of Grandmothers’s fresh cottage cheese. But money in the city, came home to carve the meat, and read the paper in the big chair that was saved for him.

It was Mother we talked to, pouring out our little childhood tragedies with the milk we drank ice cold from the fridge. When Dad appeared at the door, the weather changed. He laughed at our giant grape jokes&emdash;then corrected the grammar. He told us great stories&emdash;and expected us to do him one better. That air of competition always hung over the dinner table.

Who could tell the funniest story. Who could really zing him one. Who won. It was never me. (That’s I, Dad would say.)

“Well, well,” he said. “Sweet autumn. That’s the one with the lovely fragrance.” How strange to hear the word “lovely” from my father’s lips.

Freshmen year I tried to explain Henry James’s sensibility to Dad. (“I never understood what he was talking about,” he said. “Where’s the plot?”) I could have wedged Mom’s homemade pie down his throat, but it was I who found it hard to swallow. He was choking me, but I just sat there, feeling that old familiar torpor sweep over me.

It comes from being in a place where you’ll never be known. Like Dorothy in the poppy field.

But this Sunday was different. I set the clematis on the front porch.

“Well, well,” he said, stooping down the read the label. “Sweet autumn.’ That’s the one with the lovely fragrance.” How strange to hear the word “lovely” from my father’s lips. He straightened and took a deep breath. “Whoo,” he said softly, waiting for his heart to slow. He’s seventy-seven, with a heart problem. “Let’s see, what’s its Latin name? Clematis…”

“Paniculata,” I said quickly, feeling like a genius.

“That’s it,” he said, glancing at me through his bifocals.

We took a walk around the old grounds, proceeding slowly, in deference to his heart. “What’s that?” I kept saying, but this time I really I wanted to know.

“Spicebush. Or benzoin… we used to crush up the leaves and put it in the vaporizer when you couldn’t breathe.
It has those little yellow flowers in the early spring.”

“Before the forsythia?” I said.

“What about that, Mother?” he said.

“After,” she said.

The old college prof paused. “By the way, for-SY-thia was named for a man named Forsythe, so it isn’t pronounced for-SITH-ia, as everyone insists…”

I looked around for a heavy shovel… but he’s so old now.

“Now fragrant viburnum’s a good plant to put in up there,”
he said, switching the subject. We took a breather by those rose beds, where some of the old varieties Grandmother planted still bloom.

“What’s the one called?” I asked about a little low bush with pink blooms.

“Oh heaven knows,” he said companionably. “I think it’s the original tea rose, from which the hybrid teas were grown, nut I can’t be sure. It’s been moved so many times…and grown from slips, you know.”

You know. The words of one kindred spirit to another. I just stood there, like a tended clematis, taking in the sun.


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