A Garden in Late Summer

HELEN CHAPPELL

September 22, 1993|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland. -- "What do you think of those glads?'' Miss Nettie asks her daughter, Jeanne Swann. Miss Nettie reaches out and pulls the stem of red flowers toward her, the blossoms passing through her gentle fingers.

''These are Crimson Hearts; they're an old, old variety, you know. I dug up some bulbs from a corner of the old schoolhouse two jTC falls ago; they were all overgrown with honeysuckle over there.'' She releases the stalk, and it springs back, ruffled blossoms trembling up to the sunlight. ''Here, in this corner of the garden they get enough sun, and the color sets off the orange and pink in the zinnias, just as they're starting to bloom.''

She whips out her secateurs, pruning the withered head off a branch of love-in-a-mist, which she stuffs into the pocket of her apron. ''If I could paint a picture, like Larrimore Briscoe, I'd paint this garden in late summer,'' she sighs.

''I can never see these flowers without thinking about family and friends. This love-in-a-mist, now, it came from one that my grandmother put in by her back porch when I was first married. I can remember now how we used to sit there on hot summer nights, singing. Your great aunt Miriam played the guitar, and we'd sing all the popular songs, boys and girls together. 'Mockingbird Hill,' 'The Tennessee Waltz.' The boys used to come by boat, those nights, from Elliot's Island and over to Wallopsville. We used to go to Patamoke to the dances they had there then, in those days after the war.''

Her voice is soft and thoughtful. In the long evening light, she almost looks young again. ''That's where I first met your father, you know, over to those dances at Patamoke. I was 19 then, and working for the phone company. I had my little black Ford coupe, and I thought I was very sophisticated. He'd come back from the war, you know, and was working on his father's farm, going to go to school at night, on the G.I. Bill. I was wearing a yellow dress, and Miriam was wearing blue, and I saw him come in with my brother, and I said 'That's the man for me.' Alva Leery. What a funny name, Alva, I thought, but it didn't stop me for a minute. Your father was a very handsome man when he was younger.''

A yellow rambler has taken over the back fence, full of big, blooming cabbage roses the color of fresh buttercream. ''We planted this the year we moved into this house,'' Miss Nettie says. ''I stole the cutting from the dance hall down to Patamoke. Don't look at me like that, didn't you know that cuttings won't thrive unless you 'steal' them? Oh, your father used to tease me about my flowers, but he loved to look at them. You know, someone asked me the other day, if you could have someone back from the dead for 10 minutes, alive all over again, would you wish it?''

Snip, and she hands Jeanne a branch of roses. ''I thought about your father, and finally, I thought, no. Listen; it's hard enough to lose people one time, let alone to have them back only to lose them again. The past is a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there. You have to cherish what you have here and now, do the best you can for the future. If he's willing to meet you halfway, then you meet him half- way.''

Miss Nettie smiles, and there is just a glimpse of the ghost of the girl who drove that Ford coupe and worked for the phone company in her face. Snip with the secateurs, and the withered head of a rose falls to the ground.

''Men,'' she pronounces, ''are like little puppies and you have to treat them that way. They never grow up. But then, neither do we. I'm a mother and a grandmother and I still don't feel like a grown-up.''

Helen Chappell is an Eastern Shore writer.

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