by Zinta Aistars
All fall, all winter, all spring even—I walked the neighborhood near my office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, snapping photos and undisturbed. No one seemed to mind. No one seemed to notice. With each passing lunch hour of my photogenic strolls, I got a little braver. Creeping over lawns, walking up sidewalks or driveways, leaning over fences and in toward houses to get my shot. The day I decided to take photos of interesting doorways, from the shabbiest to the most grandiose, I was approaching one doorway after another, snap, snap, yet no one threw a boot at me or yelled at me from a window or opened the door to shout, hey you … !
It’s summer. I’ve skipped a few lunch hour walks when temperatures move up toward 80s and, God forbid, the 90s. I have no heat tolerance. I am comfortable with my house at 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the glorious winter and when spring even hints at heat, my AC is cooling my rooms to a cool 65. And still, I toss at night, that deep, restful sleep of chilly nights evading me. When autumn finally cools the air again, my energy level instantly leaps upward. Summer is my season of hibernation.
Today, however, the thermometer shows a reasonable 73 by the time my lunch hour rolls around. The weekend just ahead is to be a hellish 90-something. My window of opportunity is here, and I head out at noon, camera in hand.
There: roses. I once had such a beauty in my front yard, a seeming thousand homes ago, a gift from a friend. The rose bloomed with its great, blood red buds, opening into lush blossoms, fragrant, sensual, inviting. Passing cars would slow to gape when she was in full seduction. Then, I grew to hate the gaudy flower. It appeared on every tacky greeting card and Valentine. It was the base for every sickly sweet cheap perfume. It was the cliché of all flowers. It was the eye-roller of bad poetry. Gertrude Stein missed the point, or perhaps got it: a rose is a rose is a rose, and that's all.
My taste had changed, evolved, grown finer, wilder, and I was drawn now to English gardens, to fields of unkempt flowers, there as their creator had made them, unadulterated by chemical pesticides and fertilizers, with curving borders and spilling over rocks. I adore humble violets, growing close to the ground, with leaves like open palms or green and ready open hearts. I pluck daisies, weave them into wreaths and hang them on my bedpost. My heart hums with warm memories when I come across tiny blue forget-me-nots. I won’t forget …
I approach the roses at the end of the block and snap a few photos. Still not my favorite, although I am considering one for my own newly dug garden at home. No more blood reds, however. I’ve seen enough bloodied and false romance in my life for any more red roses. As new romance unfolds, my eye is drawn to the white rose, the symbol of new beginnings, of renewed purity, honor and reverence.
I look up over my camera. A smiling young woman is watching me snap photos of her daisies, tall and gangly and pretty, leaning up against her white picket fence.
I return her smile. “You have the perfect white picket dream going on here.”
Her smile widens to show teeth, and she comes closer. “You’re from the hospital?” She points back past her shoulder.
“I work there, yes. Your garden gladdens my lunch hour walks.”
“Oh, thank you! Let me show you … “
And she is off, chattering cheerily about her flower choices, the rocks she uses for borders, the woven window baskets, and which perennials she planted first, which just this season. I nod at her pink wild roses, a short shrub but heavy with frilly little roses, tiny as trim fingernails, and she blushes with delight to match, telling me how she waters them with tea.
“My used up tea bags, yes! I boil them again and water the roses with the tea water once cooled. They love it!”
A gardener after my own heart. She uses egg shells for calcium, coffee grounds for soil acidity, and she composts in the back to feed her plants. I tell her about my new garden, planting perennials for the first time in 15 years because I never believed I would stay. Now, I am planting for the ages. Mine or someone else’s. I am learning plant names I never knew, or had forgotten, and I am thinking about composition as if visualizing a painting come alive. I thrust my bare hands into the dirt, let the soil form a thin black moon beneath my nails, and crumble the earth between my fingers. I pat down the dirt around the root, water it carefully, slowly, letting the water trickle between the crevices of soil and seep in, quench thirst.
She waves at me as I at last walk away, once more thanking her for the gift she has given random passersby such as myself. A few houses down, another woman peeks out as I lean over to look more closely at the tiny blossoms of her …
“Would you like to know about my garden? I can tell you…”
I smile and nod and ready myself to listen. Women and their gardens. Our fields of wild color and creativity amidst quiet lives. Or our noisy lives, where our hearts can grow quiet and know ease among the pools of color, where beauty makes sense, and responds to the care and love our hands offer.
I am a late bloomer. The great gardens of my youth are long gone, grown over, or perhaps they blossom still, somewhere far away where I once lived another life, and where another hand now tends them or mows them over. At long last, I am at that place again, at that time, when I, too, sip a warm cup of tea while sitting on my front step, my eyes taking in that gentle, silent beauty of my new garden. Flowers line the front of my house. Flowers lean and creep over rocks, bunch together and string apart. Perennials, with room to grow and multiply. Roots that will reach into the rich earth and take hold and strengthen with time.
There, in that spot where the new stone border sweeps outward, still empty, I will plant a white rose.
To my Facebook friends: My "Lunch Hour Stroll" photo series, now in Part IV and covering its third season, is the evolving photo essay of what I see when I open my eyes and truly look ... and stop to smell the daisies.