This summer I've been reminded of the ability of material objects to bring the past to life, if only in memory. It's as though, through the memories, significant people in my life are with me once again, and I find that they've never really been gone. Our relationship picks up as it would with someone who'd moved away and returned after a long absence, in the present but informed by the past, as real and vibrant as if they were really with me in the flesh.
My grandmother Tillie's old armchair is one such object. And flowers, particularly roses, are another.
When I was very young my dad had a beautiful rose tree in the little flower bed at the front door of our house. He was very proud of it and with good reason. The roses were a deep, vibrant red and the tree was almost constantly in bloom, its form perfected by my dad's careful pruning. He was an engineer and I suppose the exacting nature of his profession expressed in his meticulous attention to the plant.
One afternoon a sudden summer thunderstorm blew up. I remember sitting at the open garage door with my dad and my younger sister watching huge raindrops strike the hot pavement just outside the door. First one fell, then another and another. I could hear the splat. I remember the smell of the rain in the air. Soon there was a downpour and then hailstones began to fall. At the height of the hailstorm one stone struck the rose tree and a branch fell to the ground. There were blooms on it and I remember seeing the red against the white of the hailstones.
My dad was furious. He raged against the storm as though it were human and had disfigured the rose tree on purpose, just to show my dad that he was not, after all, in complete control of his life and his destiny. I thought it was kind of strange, my dad getting so mad at a thunderstorm and a hailstone. But, sitting here over fifty years later, I realize that my dad was always uncomfortable being reminded that he wasn't in control of his life and his destiny. I think he was afraid of his own human frailty and, ultimately, of his own mortality.
I remember, too, the Peace rose my mother had at the edge of the patio when I was a young teen. She would cut the flowers and float the pretty yellow and pink blooms in a cut glass rose bowl. They weren't fragrant but they were so beautiful, their soft color reflecting through the glass. This year I planted a Peace rose in my own garden. It reminds me of my mother and the way that she must have planted the love of beautiful things in me as a child. My relationship with my mother was complicated and by the time she died we were basically estranged. She is honestly not one of those significant figures from that past whose return in memory I welcome. But all that seems bypassed by the Peace rose. Oddly symbolic, isn't it, the way the flower has in a way lived up to its name?
My own kids are grown now and some of my girls are becoming gardeners themselves. All, I think, love flowers. Roses in particular are significant. They remind the girls of me in the same way that roses remind me of my own parents. While it might be true, as Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter, that no spell can reawaken the dead, in the end I think that Sirius Black was right. The ones who love us never really leave us. They remain in our hearts, their memories just waiting to be brought to life through things like old armchairs and roses.
© Karen Opp James. All rights reserved.