We drove east through a thunderstorm, the kind of summer storm that moves like Pigpen’s dust cloud, sunlight visible all around it, glistening steam in its wake.
We took the highway as far as we could, because the highway was the most efficient route and I was driving. Then we curved around rural roads, crisscrossing an invisible county line defined only by political yard signs, past double-wide trailers and iron-gated mansions separated by acres, because open space is why one moves to Eads or Piperton or wherever we were, temporarily out of range for GPS.
We were looking for a particular house, one he said he would recognize by the marker on the mailbox, though he was disoriented because usually he came out on the back roads, which were more interesting, he reminded me. He’d only been here twice, I reminded him, and he said, twice is enough to remember.
He’d found the place by accident, two years earlier, driving home from Michigan City where he’d been to visit a metal-working friend who helped him fix our daughter’s iron bed frame. On the way back, using the sun as his map, he’d passed a sign that read “Daylily Sale,” and he stopped to investigate.
He came home that year with exactly 20 plants, two each of 10 different cultivars, green plastic tags tied to the stems. He planted them in a random polka-dot pattern on the enormous stretch of monkey grass that is our front yard, because once upon a time, years ago (he reminded me), I’d said I wanted a yard full of flowers that would bloom all summer. Happy Mother’s Day, he said.
The next year, he went back for more, determined to get the one specific cultivar – Spiderman – that she’d been unwilling to part with during their first meeting. He must have charmed her, because he came home carting not only one – and only one – Spiderman lily, but with some other extras, too, and three each of those, no extra charge.
Some are short and some taller, and they’ll bloom at different times, he said, though I was only half listening, because gardening has never really interested me.
Maybe the ditch lilies will fill in the blank spaces, I said, looking at the larger and healthier clumps of common daylilies that volunteered after the big oak trees came down and we had to start looking for plants labeled Bright Sun instead of Shade. She said we need to keep those separate, he said, because those are invasive and will choke out everything else. And these are prettier, he added, pointing out each acquisition, describing the colors and blooming patterns, though unable to remember any by name, other than Spiderman, because he can never, ever remember names.
This, then, is the third year.
Mother’s Day weekend came and went, and though he sent her a text, asking about the sale, he didn’t hear a peep until he’d almost given up on a response. I’m not having a sale this year, she said, because it’s too much damned work and I’m tired. But you can come on out, as long as you’re willing to do the digging. And bring that wife of yours, I want to meet her.
It is the last Saturday in June.
Her house is a small, brick country house, built from a catalog plan, perhaps, from a time when owning a home instilled a different kind of pride. She is bent over, weeding the large bed outlined by hand-placed bricks around a tall tree. She stands to wave us forward, into the shade where we can park. She has short silver hair and light blue eyes, so bright you can see them from a distance.
He gets out of the car and she walks over to hug him. You look good, she says, you’ve lost a few pounds. I’m trying, he says, and pats his belly.
You must be Jennifer, she says, holding out a hand; I’m Betty, it’s nice to meet you.
Y’all want some water? she asks, gesturing to the white refrigerator in the corner of the carport, which is filled with chairs and a couple of rolling carts and buckets and other things that leave no room for a car. No, we’re good, he says, we’ve been in the air conditioning too long. She shakes her head. It’s hot out here, and you’re gonna be working ’cause you’re gonna have to do all the digging this year and you need to stay hydrated, she says. It’s fine, I’ve got water in the car, he says, already walking down toward the shed where the tools are. Get the wheelbarrow, too, she calls after him, so you won’t have to carry everything; but he isn’t listening.
What’s this? I ask, while we’re standing there, just the two of us. Cypress vine, she says, it’ll grow anywhere. It’s beautiful, I say. We’ll send you home with some, she offers. And that’s butterfly weed, in that field over the fence? Yes, she says. All that land used to be ours until we sold it a few years ago; but the neighbors are nice and let me grow things there still. He’s in IT, works in Memphis, she says, with a nod to the enormous house that sits far back from the road, open field, green and blooming, stretching out in between.
You ready? he asks, shovel over his shoulder, walking back up the little hill. Jennifer wants some butterfly weed, she says, but we’ll get that at the end so it won’t wilt; don’t let me forget.
The lilies are in the back, behind the house, hidden from the road. The first year I came there were thousands of them, he tells me quietly, thinking he is telling just me. Sold ’em to another daylily farmer down the road, she calls, having heard him; I mostly kept the ones I like, but there’s still enough for you to have some, too.
They are planted in three jagged ribbons, the beds identifiable but not manicured. At first there appear to be a dozen or so, varying shades of orange and yellow from one end to the other. The mutations are subtle, though: two flowers the same coral color, but one with more ruffle on the petals. Chicken fat, she says, running her knotty finger around the edge of the flower; that’s what they call it. Then she points out all the tiny variations that aren’t as obvious, how one is darker, here (she points) while the other (she calls it by name) is lighter. Petal, sepal, throat, fan: new words will come home with the harvest.
Put the shovel right there, she says, pointing. Cut it right in the middle, can you do it? Yes, he says, putting his full weight into the dig. Shake some of that dirt off, so it won’t be so heavy, she says as he pulls the clump from the ground.
By now we have a little line of plants lying neatly in a row on the grass. Each will have its own plastic bag, so we won’t mix them up when we get home; these are her instructions.
How about this one? he asks. Maybe next year, she answers. She is smiling. But you can have all of this, she points to a mound of green leaves; it’s the first to bloom in May, and it’s a pretty one.
We negotiate each row this way, one story at a time, filling our heads with names and ideas until there is no room for more.
My phone buzzes, our daughter calling. It’s storming, and the power is out. We look west, toward the river, and see the dark clouds. You’d better head home, Betty says.
He carries the bags by hand, without the cart, and she fusses at him. It’s hot and you’re working too hard. He shakes her off, starts loading the car, using an old quilt my grandmother made to line the cargo hold.
She walks me around the front yard while he works, showing me carved birdhouses and wooden statues that her son made. He was a lot like Bernard, she says, but he never found an anchor, couldn’t get settled.
We keep walking.
Do you have sedum in your yard? she asks, and she calls him over to dig that, too, before we leave.
Call me next year, she says, and she hugs him. I’m glad you came, she says, and she hugs me, too.
We drive west, in a car that smells of earth and sweat. The power is back on by the time we arrive, and the storm has settled into a steady rain.
It will rain all night, the bags of lilies (and wild verbena, cypress vine, butterfly weed, and sedum) resting in plastic bags under the drip line of our carport. It will take three weekends to get everything in the ground. A yard full of Hemerocallis – “beauty for a day” – that will bloom, one flower at a time, until late August, the long stretch of summer complete.