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Autumn in New England is a golden time of year. In a few short weeks, the leaves will be ready to put on their grand finale of color and the air will soon be filled with the warm smell of apple cider, pumpkin pie and Octoberfest ales. The green grass we’ve enjoyed all summer has begun to turn a golden yellow and brown. And, to those of us who despise the cold, dreary days of winter, the last few days of summer-like warmth are treasured more than gold.
The one piece of fall that I enjoy the most is the bright blooms of the marigold. Described by Rand B. Lee, author of Pleasures of the Cottage Garden, as “desperately vulgar,” the marigold is a staple in many New England gardens.
By this time, almost everything in my garden has long since stopped trying to please me with flowers. The plants efforts are now focused mostly underground, where roots grow deep to stockpile energy. Deeper and deeper they dive in order to escape the hard freeze of a typical Maine winter.
Sure, most of the plants are still green, but I believe this in only to prevent us from thinking that they are dead and digging them up. The green of late fall is for self-preservation only. Just for keeping up appearances.
So why does the bold marigold seem to shine so bright while others are fading into hibernation? What gives marigolds the right to thumb their noses at cooler days and colder nights that make other plants run for cover? Marigolds have attitude. They are the bad-boy flower.
However, I don’t think they are reckless. They have a secret. They can live forever – and I have proof.
For as long as I can remember, my father loved marigolds. Every spring he would toss handfuls of seeds from an overflowing coffee can around the yard like it was grass seed. When summer finally arrived, every sunny spot in the yard was filled with bright yellow, red and orange blossoms.
I used to wonder how this happened. Was my father skimming seeds from a secret source? Did he have an ‘in’ with the folks at Burpee? Surely we could not afford to actually buy as many seeds as were thrown around each spring. So where did they all come from?
I can still remember my dad showing me where he got his seemingly endless supply of marigolds plants, without ever visiting a nursery.
After plucking a dried flower and cracking open its sheath, my dad revealed a tight cluster of 20-25 needle-like white and black seeds. I learned that each marigold blossom had the ability to reproduce itself several times over. A single plant, which could produce 20 flowers during a season, could likewise yield more than 500 seeds for next season! Talk about a lasting legacy.
Every fall, my dad would faithfully ‘harvest’ his golden crop of spent marigold blossoms into an empty shoebox, coffee can or whatever else he could find. Those seeds would spend the rest of the winter on a shelf in the shed waiting for the first warm, wet days of spring.
Apparently, seeds that were pampered by spending the cold winter months in the warmth of the basement did not come to life as vibrantly the following spring – their toughness evident even before birth.
Living in suburban Massachusetts, the size of our yard could never possibly support the amount of marigolds that were available to us each year. As a result, my father made it a point to share his annual harvest with neighbors, friends, relatives and perhaps even a few total strangers. I would always delight in seeing the faces of these recipients, who, expecting to get a paper-thin envelope, would receive a sandwich bag bursting at the seams with seeds.
I don’t know if my Dad ever shared the secret of where his endless supply came from with others, but I do know there are many people, including myself, who can’t pass a marigold now without thinking of him.
Marigolds are a plant that is hard to ignore and even harder to forget. Their strong fragrance, bright colors and longevity keep them going until the harshest of frosts hit.
Even when they are gone, like my father, they leave behind everything you need to keep them close by for many years to come. You just have to know where to look.
My great aunt, the sister of my grandmother, passed away earlier in the week after a short stay in the hospital. She was a wonderful lady who always had a kind word for everyone she met. Although most of our family, my great aunt included, has moved out of the area, this is the place where we still go when someone dies.
A few years ago, we made the same trip when my grandfather passed away – even though he had lived more than 30 miles away for more than a decade. Actually, to say that this place is a town is actually a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like several small towns melded together into a group of more than 90,000 residents of every size, shape and color sharing the same zip code.
The town is Dorchester, Massachusetts and the neighborhood is called Neponset, named for the river that forms one of its boundaries. Now, if you’ve been a reader of my columns for a while now, you may think that I was raised out in the country somewhere. Perhaps on a farm with rolling hills and meadows of wildflowers nearby, lots of trees and a river or pond in the area too – my younger days being spent listening to gentle breezes, birds singing and crickets a-chirping.
The reality is, for the first six years of my life, this could not have been further from the truth. For these years were spent living on an island of sorts.
We lived in a two family house in an apartment above my grandparents – the same house that my father and his five siblings grew up in. The house was located on a small peninsula of land that was bordered by such lovely things as a set of freight train tracks (no fence) followed by four sets of electrified MBTA tracks (fenced) on one side and an almost incomprehensible circular intersection of roads, highways and Morrissey Boulevard, on the other.
Suffice to say, as a 4- and 5 year-old kid, it was pretty clear where my boundaries were. I would dare say that even the most adventurous child would be reluctant to explore much past the area patrolled by noisy trains, cars, trucks, buses and police cars.
Speaking of noise, did I mention that the neighborhood was also located directly under the incoming flight path of planes landing at Boston’s Logan Airport?
Ah, to be sitting at a nice, relaxing dinner as the traffic screams by, a trains’ whistle blows to the kids waving from a bridge, just as a 747 jumbo jet comes in for a landing. Years later, watching “The Blues Brother’s” movie, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as Jake and Elwood sleep like babies while the Chicago ‘El’ trains continuously rumble past the front of their apartment building. Been there, done that.
However, for all the incessant noise that accompanies city life, there was also a natural playground that I found there as a child. Perhaps it was because the house was built well below street level, but most of the sound from the road actually floated harmlessly above us while we played in the yard below.
Added to this, my grandfather maintained a good-sized garden, an abundant compost pile and several rain barrels by which he kept his plants watered. This, during a time (the mid 1970s) when “going green” meant you probably just ate a bad TV dinner. The yard also featured a gnarly crab apple tree that annually supplied my cousins and me with ammunition for apple “wars.” (OK, perhaps one or two trains passing were targeted on occasion too.)
My family and I moved out of the house when I was 6. We moved out to a suburban town where my father was working at the time. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure that the school busing turmoil had something to do with it too.
When we moved out, my aunt and uncle moved in. For the rest of my childhood, every holiday was spent back at the house with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandmother’s sister, the one who just passed away, lived around the corner. We’d sometimes walk down to her house to visit and meet up with our second cousins and the like.
As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather eventually moved out of the house too. My grandmother passed away some years earlier and the old place was getting more and more difficult for him to maintain on his own. Holidays were now split between different relatives houses and for a while, there was very little reason to travel back to the “old neighborhood.”
Over the years, I would wonder what it would have been like to live the rest of my life in that place – the island, the oasis of security in an otherwise hostile world. Who knows, maybe I could have been a member of the “New Kids on The Block?”
Now, 30 years later, we are all drawn back to this place again. Like fish coming back upstream to the place where they were born, so too my family now comes back – mostly to remember those who have died. We talk about all the changes to the places around us while trying to ignore the changes happening in each one of us. Infants are now teenagers, children are now adults and adults are now seniors.
So, here we are. The old neighborhood, the old church, the old cemetery (within earshot of the same Expressway and fittingly, the only cemetery in the country with train tracks running through the middle of it.) Strangely though, I’m feeling relaxed and completely at ease among all the noise and congestion.
After all, no matter that I had not set foot in the place in years, no matter that hardly any of my family lives here anymore, no matter that most of the stores and buildings have changed or been replaced. This is the place we came from…and it’s the place that many in my family have chosen to come back to as a final resting place.
As I spend the summer in search of some fun and a little peace and quiet, I’m going to try and remember the feeling I had while standing on a busy sidewalk, in our old neighborhood, as the city roared all around me.
Peace, after all, is where you decide to find it. Where do you find peace ?