Daddy’s Roses

My father’s high school photo, autographed for his cousin Bill, who shared the photo with me.

I was 28 years old when my workaholic father died a few months before his 51st birthday. He was a deeply mysterious figure to my child self, and I never got the chance to ask him all the questions I had for him, which is probably why I cling fiercely to the few memories I have of him interacting directly with me and only me, his eldest child.

One of the most vivid of those memories is from the spring of my tenth year when my father decided to plant a fancy rose garden on one side of our house. This was extraordinary for a couple of reasons. First, he grew up poor and spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, which I don’t think was a happy memory. Proud of his college degrees and brilliant mind, my father rarely did any outside work, turning over lawn-mowing and other duties to his children as soon as we were deemed old enough to manage them.

It was thus nothing short of amazing to me when he announced he would be installing rose beds on the side of the house. This moment was also extraordinary for me because it was the only time I can remember my father ever being interested in my greatest fascinations – gardening and the natural world. Of course, I volunteered to help him.

My father knew absolutely nothing about gardening, but he was an avid reader. That reading would occasionally inspire him to take up something he had never tried before, just to prove he could do it. He once built a model railroad track on a massive piece of plywood that took up most of our playroom. He built an entire landscape around the track – mountains, trees, houses, little people – it was a masterpiece on a miniature scale. As was always the case with these inspired episodes, as soon as he had mastered a subject, he grew bored and moved on. It was much the same with the rose garden.

My father was an Episcopal priest, and somewhere in his reading, he must have stumbled across an image that appealed to him of a church vicar tending his roses. Looking back on the rose garden episode now, I realize my father had done his homework. Exerting more physical effort than I had ever seen, he dug out two crescent-shaped beds that faced each other. I remember jumping down into the trenches to help him. I was about 5’2” by the time I was ten, and the trench was deep; ground level reached about mid-way across my chest. It wasn’t easy work digging out the Piedmont clay of the hillside, but he kept at it several Saturdays in a row, actually staying home to complete the project instead of working at the office as he usually did.

He filled the trenches with a mix of materials from bags. I’m guessing they contained a mix of topsoil and fertilizers, no doubt whatever the experts in his reading had recommended. One Saturday he came home with twelve good-sized rose bushes, six for each crescent-shaped bed. The bushes were still dormant, all stems and thorns, but they were several feet tall. Daddy had paid for larger plants, no doubt impatient for a payoff in fragrant blooms.

It worked. By early summer, Daddy’s rose bushes were putting out lovely blossoms in an array of colors. He seemed to like the deep red and pure white ones best, often cutting them for vases he filled at his office at the church. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the roses in our house.

By the end of the summer, the roses weren’t looking so great. The heat and humidity of a Piedmont summer had done what they often do to roses. Diseased leaves and Japanese beetle attacks had reduced the vigor of the bushes considerably. Either my father hadn’t read up on how to deal with these issues, or more likely, he had lost interest entirely in the project after producing enough roses to show off at the church.

The roses limped along for a year or two, completely neglected. Then they were gone. I guess my father hired someone to pull them out and restore the lawn. But for a few months one year of my childhood, my father and I briefly bonded over roses. I wish I could tell you it opened his eyes to the Green World I already loved passionately by then. But I’d be lying.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, wherever you are.

My father in his Episcopal priest “uniform,” probably about age 37 here.

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