Monday, March 3, 2014

FEBRUARY FLOWERS

Every February in south Louisiana, we're inspired to anticipate Spring when we see the camellias blooming everywhere. Camellias must be hardy plants because the lone bush in our backyard continues to thrive, despite the fact that we neglect to fertilize or spray it for leaf blight. It has been creating pink blooms for nigh on 25 years. My godfather, Markham Peacock, who lived in the apartment beside my home in New Iberia for a brief time, planted this triumphant bush. The day that he put his plant in the ground, I followed behind, planting two more small bushes near the coulee, and they died not long after his demise at age 99 1/2. He did not pass on his green thumb to me.

Each year I think about the planting and the harvest we make because of Markham's green thumb. I reach the conclusion that the camellia bush is godfather's way of telling us that he's still around, sharing his stories about growing up in the Delta of Mississippi and his Polaroid photographs of his travels as far afield as Africa and India. An Elizabethan scholar, he also shared his literary expertise and entertained us with a fount of jokes that sometimes bordered on the risqué but always amused us. An old-school gentleman, he believed in dressing for dinner and often appeared at my table in a three-piece suit, a white shirt and tie. We didn't respond in kind, but he took no notice of our jeans and sweat shirts, and if he appeared only in shirtsleeves, he'd put a scarf around his neck and tuck it into his shirt as if he were English royalty wearing an ascot.

Markham lived beside us for six months of the year, approximately thirteen years, before he decided to reside the full year in Virginia where he had spent most of his life teaching English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In an assisted living home, he became known as the "flower man," as his job was to deliver flowers to each resident on their birthdays, and he also invited people to dine with him at the Home's cafeteria table as if he were playing host in the grand style in which he had entertained while his wife, Dora, was alive.

When a VIP who represented Hollins College visited us one year, Markham used our living room to entertain her and referred to the apartment we had built for him as a "lean-to." The 600 square ft. apartment is actually a brick dwelling that I designed, and I cringed every time he referred to it as a "lean-to." I refrained from labeling him an equally disparaging name even though he often hung his aging, holey underwear on a line strung at the entrance to my carport for all the world to see!

In February, when the camellias bloom profusely, I especially miss Markham. However, I feel better after I've walked down to the coulee and stolen a few camellia blossoms from the bumblebees. Settled in a small vase, the blossoms bring forth his presence at my dinner table, sans the three-piece suit. Here's one of several poems I've written about Markham and the camellias. It's this year's salute to him:

WHY MARKHAM PLANTED CAMELLIAS AT AGE 94

They turn brown within a day
'though we think we're cutting them free,
removing them from crowded clusters.
But their tarnish reminds us
they belong on the bush,
can only make a short visit.

The pink camellias bloom despite their age,
their longing for nurture and water,
the large faces still showy after February frost,
bees in the nose cones,
leaves pocked with blight,
dark spots marking green boundaries
but leaving us showers of pink,
the way his age suddenly fell away
as he turned the soil of a better disposition...
those last days.

Pink camellias at the edge of the coulee
now confront us each day,
showing us something
we had not realized while he lived,
a story he could not tell:
he planted them deep
before he returned to the stiffening earth
so they could flower in wavering light,
so their beauty could prepare us
for the thing he could not name.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan
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