September 2020 | Mud, Marriage, and Magenta by Irene Baker

“Just look for the huge magenta bougainvillea,” I’ve always told friends coming to our home for the first time. “It’s so tall it reaches to the second story. You’ll think you’re in Mexico when you see it!”

I’m new to the delights of gardening. When I worked full time, I was always too busy to spend much time in our yard. Luckily over these past 25 years, our bougainvillea never seemed to mind when we forgot to water it. It bloomed and bloomed. But how quickly will it rebound now, I wonder, after my husband Hursey accidentally cut the main four-inch-thick branch in an attempt to trim it. I can’t use it as the landmark to find our home anymore, that’s for sure. I started crying when I first saw its near destruction. How small it looked now, its upper half lying across the front yard, waiting to be stuffed into several green waste bins. How quickly will it recover, I wonder? Will it recover?

Bougainvillea. Photos by Irene Baker

Today is a glorious day to be outdoors, trimming this, watering that. And as long as I don’t look in the direction of the butchered bougainvillea, I feel happy. Now that I’m semi-retired, I’ve resolved to begin to smell the roses and put my hands in the dirt more. Where should I plant this salvia Allen Chickering? The five lavender blossoms atop each stem sport a hair-like strand, forming a barely visible, delicate star. 

I found this beauty today at a California native plant nursery run by volunteers in the heart of the East Oakland barrio, across from a busy taco truck and down the street from the Hells Angels’ headquarters, just a mile from our home. This morning many families were combing the neat rows of plants, eager to add to their newly planted pandemic gardens. Some plants have names that harken from the Gold Rush, including Miner’s lettuce and Purple Chinese Houses. Two dark-eyed siblings in shorts and Warriors basketball tee-shirts were making mud pies as they waited for their mother to pay for a Sticky Monkeyflower and Red Fescue.

Salvia Allen Chickering

I pick up some white sage, anticipating the day when I can harvest its aromatics leaves to make sage bundles. Shall I plant you near the curbside and share your loveliness with my neighbors? Or perhaps you should go under the bougainvillea, once a majestic riot of magenta climbing 20 feet high, now laid low by an eager husband with a reciprocating saw. Gardening can be a test on any marriage, I’m discovering. I want to keep the small meadow of nasturtiums against the back fence. I love putting the peppery orange flowers and their even spicier stems in salads. But Hursey thinks they’re an eyesore and is ready to fire up the weed whacker. At least we both agree that the volunteer blackberry vine has to stay.

I’m so touched when Hursey takes the fish head from the salmon he just caught and buries it under what’s left of the bougainvillea. “That should help,” he says quietly. And I remember again how much I love this man. Together we dig holes for the cherry and Meyer lemon trees we bought at Costco and the Spanish lavender given to me by a teacher I mentored. Water is added to each hole to help soften the hard clay dirt. 

I push back my wide-brimmed sunhat, with its frayed straw edges and smear mud across my forehead. Pausing to stretch our sore backs, Hursey looks up into the dark purple leaves of our oldest backyard friend and exclaims, “Hey! The birds left us a few plums!” Now he’s climbing the tree and throwing plums down to me. Soon the sweet juice runs down our chins. Sweeter still, our summer kisses, tasting of forgiveness and plum, smelling of lavender, mud, and sweat.

Irene Baker has just had a story, From Barrio to Coastal Bluff: In the Time of the Pandemic, published in Birdland Journal, where you will also find three of my newer poems, Antidote to the News, The Combination, and Her Unbroken Giving.

The Choicest Plum
The dawning sun hidden in the trees
     spies me standing beside long strands
          of ruby plums, reaching to feel each fruit
one by one, until a glistening orb slips
      into my palm and dripping lips
          under that ripening, radiant one.

From At This Table

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