Virginia’s Roses

Because of a sufficient amount of rain this spring, out of those old roots and bare craggy stems, the tender rose shoots and leaves advanced in a rush of green.  Then buds.  Then in rapid succession, a yard full of color.  It is an unparalleled joy of mine.  Mine and Virginia’s, who used to live on the nearby farm called Taylor’s Purchase, years ago. She was a good friend of my mother-in-law, Evelyn Phillips, who introduced me to Virginia when we first moved here from the city.  They are both gone now, but my connection with them is still strong.

“I lost fifty rose bushes last year,” Virginia said.  “I believe everything I hear and my brother told me that I could put mushroom compost on the roses.  ‘It’ll be good for them,’ he said.  “I used to put cow manure on them and he put horse manure on his, but he’s got horses.  I think cow manure is the best.  But anyway, I had the man come with a truckload of mushroom compost and Steve, my yard man, helped me spread it.”

She spoke slowly, every word enunciated carefully.  She used to be a teacher.  Dressed in a good navy suit, blue blouse gracefully pleated at the neckline and cuffs, rhinestone earrings, sheer black stockings and sensible pumps, her white hair soft as cotton candy and neatly spun into waves and curls, not tight and prissy, but softly feminine. 

“One year, the deer came and chewed the new shoots off the bushes.  I though they’d be ruined, but I had the best roses that year that I’ve ever had.  There’s nothing like a perfect rose that you can bring into the house.  Nothing like it.” 

“In the winter, a crust formed from those mushrooms that froze up like a sheet of ice.  In the spring, I said, ‘Oh, Lord, no water could get through to those roots all that time and fifty bushes were gone, just like that.'”

“I don’t prune mine in the fall.  They should be pruned in the spring.  If you prune them in the fall and it stays warm like this year, that encourages new growth and that’ll kill them in the frost.  Gayland told me, ‘Virginia, that’ll be too many roses.  They’ll be too much to take care of properly.’  And he was right.  It was too much, but I couldn’t stop planting them.  Now there’s daylilies instead.  They don’t need any pruning, and they grow in drought.  You don’t have to care for them.  I pruned the roses to 12 inches high in the spring.  It was a lot of work, but I loved it.” 

I asked her once, “Do you get scared and lonely out here on the farm, Virginia?  When the groundhogs and raccoons gather under your bedroom window at night and have a fight, when you think a stranger is coming down that long, long lane and knocking on your door for no good reason?   Do you ever wake up in the night thinking you heard Gayland shuffling to the bathroom like he used to?  Do you ever think the house is so big, that if you died in it, no one would ever find you?”  Obviously, these thoughts had often crossed my mind.  

“Well, I’m a lot older now than when I first planted those roses, but I’m going to stay on the place as long as I can.  I feel safe out in the country and I don’t get scared or lonely.  I have the telephone set so all I have to do is push one button to ring Clark.  I don’t have to worry about finding his number or anything.  He’ll come right away.  He lives across the road and he always told me he’d come right away if I ever needed him.  I’m going to stay right here till I can’t possibly stay anymore.”

The fields around me change in a flow of time and patience.  They interest me strangely.  Who would ever have thought I’d be content to look at a field and notice?  The gathering is sad to me, the planting hopeful, the new shoots so yearning and promising it makes my heart ache, the plenty in summer so lush and comforting.  I am constantly reminded of life’s seasons, how things will be changed and how they will pass and come again.  It is the rhythm that charms me, like the waves breaking at Assateague, only slower, much, much more patient.  With the waves there is a swell and a spilling over, like breathing, momentary.  The fields offer the seasons.  They offer them up to the second story window from which I watch them in their vast, stirring and silent glory.  Except for the corn.  The noisy, rattley corn, dripping, pushing, scratching, tasseling, shushing, drying, dying.  Corn breath gives us breath.  Ever think about that?  What they pour out is what we take in.  We complete each other.

Virginia’s house used to stand within a circle, as mine does, surrounded by corn fields.  Hers was a bigger circle, enough for a hundred rose bushes and fifty fruit trees.  Her circle sat in the middle of the ring of trees she and Gayland planted when they first moved to Taylor’s Purchase.

All this time when things were happening to me, a career, a husband, kids growing up and conspiring, Virginia had been pruning her roses.  When Gayland died, she stayed.  I think it was because of the roses.  They needed her care.  Things that need our care steady us.  Gayland was right.  There were too many roses, so when she lost fifty bushes, she decided to plant something else.  Daylilies, floribunda roses, hedge roses.  Not hybrids anymore.  “Steve, my yard man, comes around 7 am and we work together.  There’s always so much to do.  When I’m gone, someone can plow them under, I don’t care.  But until then, I’ll continue like I’ve always done, like Gayland and I did.  There’s nothing like a perfect rose.  Just give me a good book and a perfect rose.  I’ll make out.” 

The story has an unhappy ending, really.  When Virginia died, the land was bought up and her historic salt box house from the 1700s was burned, the old fruit trees uprooted and the garden plowed under to make way for a huge irrigation system, that would make a wide swing around the circling corn field, of which, God knows, we have enough.  We’ll never have enough roses though, to my way of thinking.  Virginia’s, too.

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