Zephy, Creeferter, and Me

Talking with my favorite flower—and the neighbor’s kid.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HANNAH ENGLAND

I once lived in an iris-blue Queen Anne house that was bordered with 20 pink, yellow, and white roses, but that was another lifetime. When my husband died, I took a teaching job in another county, farther west, one that provided teacher housing.

The housing was a double-wide trailer, free and sound, but the yard was ridiculously small. There was room for only one rose.

It was a tough choice. I decided on Zepherine Drouhin and have never regretted it. Four times in the past 12 years, Zephy has been uprooted and transplanted, without yellowing a leaf. Needless to say, we have become close.

Eventually I bought a tiny 1902 farmhouse on a sandy Kansas road named Prairie. The house needed work, but there was room for grandkids, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and flowers. Of course, the yard also needed work. The soil was hard clay, weedy, and parched. That first year, I planted apricot trees, cherry trees, peach trees, pears, pecans, and oaks. Some survived.

“Here, let me clip that sprained branch. It won’t hurt. I’ll dab some pruning sealer on it.”

Eventually I carved out a flower garden to border the entire back yard. Zepherine Drouhin was the only rose I dared host, be-cause the location was harsh and windy. Still, she flowered each June, like clockwork, to celebrate my birthday.

Last Summer was busy with rewiring, reroofing, replumbing, removing walls, painting, etc. In the blink of an eye, my neglected flower garden turned to foxtail, wild lettuce, and rowdy, shoulder-high cosmos. (My grandmother warned me never to turn my back on cosmos.) By frost there was no sign of my rose.

This Spring, as soon as the ice melted, I searched her out, hoe in hand and sick at heart. I found her, covered with plaster dust and the remnants of knob and tube wiring. I cleared the mess and washed her face. She was disgruntled but hanging on.

Naturally I apologized.

“Dang, Zephy! I’m sorry. I told them to dump that stuff by the road! Here, let me clip that sprained branch. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt. I’ll dab some pruning sealer on it. How about a nice cup of manure tea? We have a lot of work to do, you and I. I want to redo this whole border. Can’t use the rototiller because of the tiger lilies—you know how they are. I’ll have to dig it by hand …”

By June, snapdragons, larkspur, and violas had replaced the henbit, studs, and plaster. Best of all, Zephy bore a perfect petticoat swirl of pink blossoms. Their scent wafted through the open windows and filled my house with heavenly sweetness. I was forgiven.

Working together, Zephy and I spent the Summer reworking that weedy mess. We pulled wild lettuce until our hands blistered. We rounded up the cosmos. We planted four o’clocks between our garden and the neighbor’s huerta. We wrangled, roped, and trellised a Triffid-sized sweet pea. Mainly though, we debated design, me leaning on my hoe and musing, Zephy listening.

“I’m rethinking the viburnum,” I announced on this particular morning, taking a breather from weeding. “And, yes, I know this is a complete turnaround, but I kind of miss the cosmos.”

“Who are you talking to, Mrs. Smith?”

I jumped a little. The thing is, I forget about Christopher. He is my neighbor’s kid. For years he was Creeferter, but just weeks ago he mastered his first name. (His last name is still a little murky.) He is theoretically confined to his yard, while his older brother Edwin and the other neighborhood kids ride off on their bikes.

“I’m talking to you, Christopher!” I lied. “Where are you?” “I’m over here, in my tipi.” A mop of blue-black curls poked out of my sweet-pea tower.

I stepped over and deadheaded a couple of pea blossoms. “I thought this was your rocket to Mars.”

He frowned. Even frowning, the kid has dimples. He pulled two battered plastic figurines from his overall bib. “No. Today I am playing Indians with Yellow Brave and Big Chief.”

“What happened to Buzz Lightyear?”

“He got in trouble. He has to take a nap. Mom says.”

“Do you want to hunt buffalo?” I pointed with my hoe to a couple of concrete hedgehogs that become stampeding buffalo when the Cheyenne are in town. “Go get your bow and arrows.”

“I can’t. Mom took them away. Big Chief shot Edwin last night. He almost put his eye out! I’m making Indian canoes, like you showed me.” He held up a grubby handful of peapod canoes.

“Making canoes is hard work. How about a cookie break?” “OK!”

“Here, let me wash your hands.”

“No. I’ll wash them in the ocean!” He hopped over the four o’clock hedge and ran to the wading pool in his yard.

I had to laugh out loud. “Kids!” I said. “What imaginations.”

Zephy chuckled and nodded.


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