Planting Joy

For years, Annie Green has brought a dash of soft color to the hard pavement of a decaying neighborhood.

October 21, 1999|By LARRY BINGHAM | LARRY BINGHAM,SUN STAFF

Once, when the children were small and her husband was alive, the garden filled Annie Green's tiny back yard. Her ruby roses burst through the chain-link fence and spilled onto the sidewalk, the talk of the neighborhood.

But that was many years ago.

Once, when her memory was better, she knew the names of all the flowers in her garden, and she grew tomatoes, peppers and greens, but that was before someone stole her collards.

Now, cool October mornings whisper to her as she stands at her kitchen door, behind bars, squinting in the morning sun.

Neighbors call her "Gran." She is 68, and her hair is as white as clouds, as soft and curly as fleece. When she smiles, the wrinkles under her eyes swallow the freckles on her cheeks. When she walks, her house shoes scratch the pavement.

Winter is coming. She can feel it. She can see it. Just look at the flowers: pink and purple petunias, frosty white impatiens, gold and yellow marigolds; all of them like the wild zinnias that push up through the cracks, as leggy as teen-agers.

In summer, she watered religiously every morning, before traffic picked up and the MARC parking lot across the street filled with commuters. Her rowhouse is near the corner of Pulaski and Franklin streets in west Baltimore, where highway 40 ends.

You can find little gardens like this all over the city, any place where someone confronts concrete with living things.

Annie thinks about moving. She has thought about it nearly every day since her husband Sam died in 1995.

But who would buy her home? Look across Pulaski Street at the plywood-covered windows, pull back the curtains and see strangers. Nobody, that's who. Nobody wants to awake to the pop! of gunshots or the bang! of car wrecks all hours of the night, either.

Her husband Sam would never talk of moving when he was alive. They came up to Baltimore from Santee, S.C., in 1970, looking for a better life.

Once, they knew their neighbors, and their neighbors painted their houses and kept the stoops clean. Annie fried the fish Sam caught when he wasn't doing repairs on people's homes. Their four girls played hopscotch in the alley; their three boys played marbles under the rose of Sharon tree, Annie's favorite.

She got it from a friend on Old Edmondson Avenue not long after they moved. It had the prettiest purple flowers she ever saw. She took a sapling and brought it home. The dirt was dark and rich and felt gritty in her hands.

Annie filled her dirt with flowers of every color and every kind, choosing ones that reminded her of South Carolina.

She remembers white dogwoods, green pines and being barefoot. She remembers carrying a tin bucket and watering in the evening, in the purple air after sundown. On Good Friday, the aunt who raised her gave her watermelon seeds, and she remembers dropping one at a time in the furrowed dirt before a plow buried them.

She was grown and living in Baltimore when bulldozers mowed down houses a block away. Highway 40 brought new neighbors: a concrete wall, a concrete berm, more traffic.

Annie fought back, planting flowers. Then, in 1985, her husband lost circulation in his right leg. Doctors removed his toe, his foot, his leg up to his knee. There was nothing they could do to save the other leg, so he lost it, too. Sam needed a wheelchair lift. Annie gave him her garden.

They tore up the rose bushes and laid a hard cement path. They dug up the strawberries and built a wooden deck with an electric lift. Annie's garden died in the alley, in black plastic bags.

But that was many years ago.

If she could afford to move, Annie Green would buy a house just over the city line. She would walk on grass instead of cement. She would sit her glider under a tree. She would plant as many flowers as the earth could hold, and she might even plant vegetables.

The sound of feet on the sidewalk catches her attention, and she turns to see children walking toward Lockerman Bundy Elementary School. They wear their coats, telling her winter is coming.

They remind her there is work to do in the garden.

She holds onto the hand rail when she descends the deck stairs. Arthritis in her back and knees won't let her bend much anymore, so her daughter helps clear the gangly flowers away. She can't climb the ladder, so a neighbor prunes the rose of Sharon.

Winter doesn't worry her now. She knows a frost will come one night -- soon -- and kill all her flowers. She will still come to the kitchen door and look, even when there are no flowers left to see.

As for herself, she does not worry about getting old because there is nothing she can do about it. She does not worry about her neighborhood's decay because she cannot stop it.

When spring comes she will fight the only way she ever has, by filling a tiny garden until it overflows with pretty things.

Pub Date: 10/21/99

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