I poured myself another cup of coffee, my third already this afternoon. I was really, really dreading what I was about to do. I had stupidly scheduled a tour of my garden with many rose snobs. Not knowing what any of them would think of my house whose price tag did not reach the 7-figure dollar-mark and yet neither was it 235-qualified, I somehow felt that my “digs” were not appropriate for those who had allowed me to become a member of this snobbish society, nor did I qualify as one of their “habitat for humanity” projects. I was very, very middle-class. Not even upper middle-class.
Should I apologize that there were two families on my street whose property did not invite the glitter award, yard of the month, or should I excuse it as just some ruthless, less-refined people had moved in and had left their yards to reckless abandon, or should I be honest and tell them they were officers of the neighborhood covenant. Why was I so nervous about these people? I had seen them hundreds of times before, have chaired the board meetings and toured their gardens and taken many trips out of town and even slept in the same room and eaten with them. It was just now that I was beginning to have a jittery feeling that their harsh judgment was about to come down on me, full force. I wanted to plea a sudden heart attack or a daughter-in-law in labor, about to deliver, one who didn’t even know she was pregnant, necessitating a cancellation. It was too late to do this now, so the best I could do was down this last cup of coffee from the less-than-sophisticated Mr. Coffee, empty my bladder a couple more times, comb my hair, brush my teeth and don that summer dress that I had spent my last $100.00 (on sale) to buy. Yes, I could pretend I bought it earlier in the season and had worn it a dozen times, that it was just thread bare, but that would be a straight-out lie. They may be snobbish but they are not blind. They can see the dress has never been washed, not even washed. I should have done that and made it look like it was not a special dress. Why didn’t I just go to the dirty-clothes hamper and find something? Ummm. I guess I answered my own questions. It’s a fragrant occasion, not a soured-tennis shoe occasion. I could just be myself and feel inferior to everyone, which is what I knew that I would do.
As I pulled myself together combing, brushing, polishing and dressing, just needed to empty my bladder one more time, I heard a car pull into my driveway. Oh, my driveway. That big white, wide expanse of cement, bleached out by the sun, looking so different from the brick-paved driveways of the upper class, those who feigned poverty if their cars cost less than my house. Oh, heavens! I should have left that ivy growing on the house. It, at least, hid the residual of the eggs where the unsavory youth who were not allowed to skateboard on the big white cement driveway, avenged their rejection one hot day and left yellow and white burned protein all over the wall. What was I thinking when I removed the ivy, at least it gave the house some character and it hid the demeanor of my unruly neighborhood teenagers. Just imaging that it was the white linen colored Jaguar that belonged to Larry and Cheryl made me feel even more ill-at-ease. I knew Larry not only held a degree in horticulture, owned several farms, a farm supply store, but he grew some of the most gorgeous roses I had ever seen. Gees, what was I thinking when I agreed to this? Did I think that anyone was really going to take my roses seriously? My roses were mine and I loved them, so why was I feeling so inadequate?
The doorbell rang. I don’t even have a butler to answer my door. What would people think about me? Why would they not talk about me? I was being very pretentious, pretending that I was someone that I was not. I was pretending to be a rose snob and I am not. I don’t sit in the corner and pout about the high, pointed hybrid teas, I don’t sit and try to discern if a rose is born before or after 1870, whether or not Josephine grew it, or someone made a story up about her growing it, what its genetics are and whether or not it deserves to be in my garden, nor do I worry about whether there is enough yellow in the garden,compared to pink. I just grow roses. Damn it! I enjoy my roses. I could care less if anyone ever sees or smells them (or even if they smell); they are mine. I looked at myself in the mirror. Botox would have been a great help today. Is there an award for the whitest skin amongst gardeners? I should have worn a sweater in order to hide my freckled, white arms, but then that would not hide the wrinkled white and freckled face, showing the hard work from long hours and many days in the hot sun, not to be mistaken for the Abington's or Winchesters who drink cocktails by the pool while their immigrant, illegal gardeners labor in the hot sun, getting wrinkles. Well, at least the Hispanics tan easily and wear it well. I don’t. I just get freckles and wrinkles. The doorbell rang once more. I hurried. I hurried. No lipstick on yet and I will just pretend I am a purist, an organic person. Oh, Heavens. That will get me in trouble with the rose snobs who spray. I can’t be organic today, just unkempt.
I swung the door open and saw Cheryl and Larry standing there, smiling. Oh, my. They really are beautiful people. Cheryl is half my size. She weighs about 90 pounds, stands about 5-feet 1-inch and just having returned from their little house at Seaside, is tanned from head to toe. Her toes are small as are her feet, her whole being. I feel like the Hulk except I am too white. Cheryl’s toes are adorned with red polish that looks the color of Kardinal, a rose I have come to love. She has on gold thong sandals and a wispy handkerchief white skirt with red embroidery and a gorgeous white gardening hat with a red scarf (same damn color as her toenails). Larry has white linen pants, through which I ashamedly see his underwear. Excuse me for looking. It just happens to be the look of those people who are always going on cruises. He is wearing his trademark gardening hat with the green shade. His shirt is almost white. It is pale, pale yellow, the color of Abby de Cluny. Wonder if he bought it while they were in Cancun? I suppose they were expecting a cabana boy, but Donald balked when I asked him to fan my guests. He balked at the whole affair, but finally agreed to it. He knew I was going to be inadequate. He knows I always am. I worked very hard on the h’ors douvres, slaved over petit fours with little pink confections, the same look and color as Bride’s Dream. Oh, the labor! I have licked so many cake spoons I probably smell like Crisco. Of course, I put away all the kitchen appliances, hoping they will believe my food was catered from L’Affaire. It’s just that darn food processor is so heavy! I have turned and cranked and pushed and shoved and cut bread crusts and dyed bread and washed and starched and ironed tablecloths, napkins and even broke out the neat serving pieces that my sons gave me for Christmas that are etched with rose patterns. Did I happen to mention that all these rose events call for lemonade? Yes, I made it. I even used the lemon peel to banish the smell of tuna where my poor, unrefined cats had strewn their food all over the floor. I hope neither of them has to use the litter box while this is going on, otherwise, we are going to smell cat feces. My cats are so intimidated by hoity-toity people so they never make it out of the closet when we have guests. I guess I best go open the suitcase so they can take a dunk in it while the guests are here. I will just tell them I have been brewing some alfalfa tea in the garden tub.
Cheryl and Larry are nice. They always are. They are well bred, reek of white clothes and party manners. I invite them to sit under the pergola while I grab some lemonade. Just getting lemonade for me is a big production. Everything else is done. I even bought new “Martha Stewart” cushions for the wrought iron chairs, Adirondack chairs, swings and rockers, my hodgepodge of old and new stuff, either yesterday or today, one day, fresh from the Mart. I hope no one shops at K-Mart. Larry and Cheryl sit in the swing under the pergola while I run back to the kitchen. (James) My gardener is on hand in his very best blue jeans (my Christmas gift to him, along with a bottle of inexpensive wine and a few extra bucks) and Auburn hat (I gave him which one of the boys abandoned years ago). He is now ready for whatever. I see him from the kitchen window. He is smiling and talking to the McDowells. It is obvious that he has invested a lot of his gardening money into that one gold tooth while neglecting the rest of his mouth, personal health and hygiene. Two more cars make their way up the driveway. It will be the Byrds and the Abington's. I suppose we will happily talk about their cruise to Alaska and beyond and how everyone from the Country Club enjoyed the trip. I suppose we will chew on this trip for months to come and we will hear silly stories about the mayor’s and the governor’s wives who were in tow and just kept us “laughing every single minute”. Why am I so intimidated? Hell, I have been to the White House. I have eaten there. I have sat at the same table with a president, Richard Nixon. Oh, well, I suppose I need to leave that subject untapped. I surely will not mention how I was almost shot while trying to break into Ronald Reagan’s campaign trailer, just to get his autograph while he was still the governor of California, nor should I mention that when he ran for President, he actually held my baby, Jason, on his lap. No, because Donald would tell the rest of the story, that Jason peed on Ronald Reagan, which was not a happy moment for me. That Secret Service don’t mess around. Yes, and I ate at the White House when the Clintons were there but I don’t expect these rose friends would understand that my best friend happened to be the social director for the Clintons, particularly given the kind of socializing Bill Clinton enjoys. Politics is best left out of a rose meeting, I presume.
I call to Nellie, my occasional housekeeper, and that is a very apt description. She occasionally shows up on schedule and while she is here, she occasionally works. I spend more energy demonstrating how to clean than she does cleaning but at least it makes me feel like I have arrived at the point of being able to afford someone, who if nothing else, is an occasional housekeeper, who occasionally shows up for work. Nellie answers the door. Nellie knows how to do this. She has worked for the biggest and best and richest in her day. Although she is getting on in age, she is dressed to the nines. She has a starched white organdy apron on and is smiling and greeting as if she personally had financed the last two Lamborghini's that made it up the big white expanse of concrete.
More people are making their way onto the big wide driveway, while others are parking on the street and I am sure they are all looking over their shoulders for would-be muggers, while I am once again emptying my bladder. Oh, Heavens, what if I have to do more than empty my bladder? Will I then need a shower or a bidet? I don’t even own a bidet. I must get into the kitchen and put the coffee grounds in my composter bin before Nellie puts them in the disposal. Must I apologize for that as well? Donald has made his way to the patio. Oh, Lord, why can’t I be like him? He has on a pair of cut-off blue jeans and is happily engaging them in conversation. Call me stupid, but the man just does not care how much money anyone has, he is himself and I like that about him. In fact, I love that about him. He can make small talk with almost anybody. He will just as easily slap Bill Strickland, President of First Bank, on the back and talk to him about baseball, as he would with Dr. Rackner about spinal fusion, or as he will with James the Gardener or Nellie the Occasional about the taste of a ham sandwich.
Suddenly I become cognizant of my fence out by the sidewalk. I had imagined for years how beautiful a wrought iron trellis would look at the front of the house by the sidewalk, flanked by a black wrought iron fence, visions of St. Charles and the French Quarter dancing in my head. When I put it up, it just did not look as I had imagined it would. My house was definitely not Victorian nor was it New Orleans. It just somehow or other did not look right, but the roses were beautiful. La Marquee has scampered all the way to the top on either side and Madame Joseph Schwartz lines the fence from the big hunk of concrete all the way to Dana’s property line. They look wonderful. I sprayed this week and there are no thrips, no aphids, no mites, mildew, fungi or Japanese beetles. The flowers are clean and purest white. I am sure I am hearing the whispers from the ranks of the wealthy about my wrought iron fence and trellis perhaps even looking tawdry in my neighborhood. That bed of hybrid teas along the driveway looks sensational. James and I manicured them such that they are as beautiful as Cheryl’s toenails. The keystone pavers look natural now with the help of a little yogurt, the same color as the house’s brick. They have that patina of old money on them, although they were purchased at Lowe’s only two years ago. The foundation plantings are pretty and Westerland has scampered up the wall by the front door. My front door looks gorgeous today. I had it painted with epoxy over the mahogany stain, and managed enough money for a designer to come out and pick roses and flowers from my beds and place them in a frou-frou bucket hung on my beautiful mahogany door with the lead-glassed panels. She placed each rose and each flower in its own little water vile and made it look like the ladies’ rose baskets who live in Plantation Downs. My grass is as green as Robert Trent Jones Golf Course and just as lush. Sally Holmes has bloomed appropriately and smiles at everyone as they pass her by. Paloma Blanca calls to everyone to touch her and smell her. She is irresistible. As beautiful as I feel it all is, Cheryl asks me why would I plant Westerland with La Biche. She says she feels that Westerland is a kind of rugged rose and La Biche is so demure. I told her that I think that the town tramp should be required to live by the good girl, so that each one of them can learn from the other, contrast in social status. She nods but does not speak. I know she is trying hard to understand if I am talking about her first marriage, her daughter or my garden.
After the lemonade has been served and more than 30 people have come to evaluate my garden and perhaps my status in the rose-growing community, I am enlightened by having not spilled the pitcher of lemonade on any of my guests, given my propensity for clumsiness.
We begin the tour at the picket fence by the kitchen. I tell everyone to look to the right where they will see Zephrine Drouhin blooming, and that her fragrance is intoxicating goes without saying. About the time I am ready to explain how I rooted it and how long it took to reach the size it is now, some larger-than-life lady yells. No, not yells: She screeches, a more applicable verb, like a banshee. Oh, Lord. She has almost fainted from the heat. I ask someone to train her the water hose so we can continue with the tour. I personally wanted to wash her down, myself. James takes her aside and brings her a glass of lemonade while Nellie fans her.
As we make our way to Mermaid while everyone is gasping for breath at her very large size and bloom, one of the gentlemen ahead of me has made his way into a wasp nest. This calls for Benadryl, maybe even some epinephrine. What was I thinking when I let wasps come to my garden? I make my way to him and assured him that I can give him some Benadryl, either orally or injectable. He says he thinks it was a hornet. No, it was a wasp. He refuses either to believe me or accept my medical care, but goes on with the tour. Two gay guys who are garden designers and life companions are snickering. I think they are making light of the gentleman who is afraid of wasps. We pass by “The Bather” and she goes unnoticed by the gay guys, Phillip and Wayne. I don’t suppose they like nude women, but she is one of the main focal points in my garden, and is flanked by Buff Beauty, quite an appropriate name for a rose from which she appears to be emerging, while scantily clad in a towel. I paid good money for her and I want everyone to gush, but no one except the lady architect who has come from out of town seems to appreciate it. One of the hybrid-tea ladies whose garden is sprayed on a daily basis by her gardener, asks me what is this Buff Beauty. I tell everyone that it is a hybrid musk, one of the Pemberton musk roses and I hear one of the ladies who has just returned from the same Alaskan tour as the mayor, remark that she sees no beauty in old garden roses that were hybridized by some monk. I am having to fight my tongue. It just wants to get loose.
When we get near the bed that houses all the Eureka’s, I realize that some of my roses have suddenly come down with a slight case of blackspot, not surprising since I had to water them last night so they wouldn’t blow their blooms in this heat. Dr. Fryer asks me what I spray with. I tell him Mancozeb and Daconil and suddenly I get the lecture about Daconil in the August heat. The lecture continues. He continues. I am really tired of him about right now, but Jim Stires will rescue me from this tired argument. Jim, a consulting rosarian and horticulture professor himself, asks me how do I get the bushes so green? I told him I use coffee grounds, when I see them yellowing and he asked why? I told him to give them green color, to provide acid/oxygen and nitrogen. He asked if I have my soil tested before doing that, to which I respond, “no, I don’t.” Do I need to tell him I can’t afford to pay a laboratory in Florida $85 every time I see a yellow leaf? Then he retorts, “Then why do you add the nitrogen, if you don’t know whether or not the roses need it? I must look red in the face by now given the heat and the embarrassment. He then snidely says, “You must not know what you are doing then.” I am really glad that Donald is not here now, really happy that he is caring for the woman with the heat stroke. Otherwise, he would deck the professor. I am not going to cry. I know I am not. I will not. Nope. I am not going to cry. I think I am going to laugh because I see that Nora Abington has been snared by Robin Hood. He has reached out and touched her. Not only has he reached out and touched her, he has pulled her straw hat from her head as well as her wig, and she is trying to figure out how to get it back without major lacerations to her arms and head.. Right now her own hair looks like some small squirrel, permanently scared half to death.
One of the ladies from the visiting society helps Nora retrieve her hat and don her wig, while her husband pretends not to see. We make our way to the back of the garden, which even by my standards is a little overgrown. The Japanese magnolias are big as are the foreboding crape myrtles, but they in no way compare to the huge rose, American Pillar that totally encompasses a large arbor there. American Pillar makes all other roses including Mermaid dwarf in comparison. Just to give you an idea, it has eaten two Lady Banks roses and is on its way to eating a large oak tree. Some of the more faint of heart members opt not to examine the huge, massively pink monster. Its large white eyes stare out of Pepto-Bismol colored petals at you as if they are scoping out their next meal.
There seems to be some rabble-rousing in the crowd when it is brought to my attention that a dwarfish little Victorian lady, Lois, has engaged a large colony of fire ants in battle, and the fire ants are winning. Hey! This is Alabama where fire ants have come to stay. She is invading their territory and I am just relieved that it was no worse. I run to get the garden hose and she is screaming about her allergies. Benadryl and water in hand, I tend her miseries. She opts to join the lady with heat stroke who has now been joined by the wasp victim..
As we are nearing the cutting garden, someone asks me why do I do companion planting? Gee. It never crossed my mind not to. I love seeing long spires of blue salvia poking its head through roses and nothing pleases me more than the silvery foliage of artemesia. I heard one of the men remark that he is not particularly fond of companion planting and that no exhibition rose grower would ever put anything in the beds with their roses, not anything, for fear of mildew or rust. Gee, you mean they do not have enough chemicals for that yet? Another lady says she can tolerate companion planting as long as there are no zinnias or marigolds. Just as we turn the corner, the drifts of French marigolds meet us, and we are suddenly in the location of my bat house, which has been planted in the midst of a bed of zinnias, put there to eat as many mosquitoes as possible. One of the more squeamish and refined ladies comments that she has never seen a birdhouse like that. I try to gently explain these are different birds. When I do, she purses her painted-red lips, her rosy cheeks and painted face now glowing from the hot summer sun, and comes down on me with her condescending voice and statements such as she has never been to a wildlife habitat before, all the while looking so prim and proper. I really wanted to inform her that makeup and lipstick are made from bat feces, but I know this fight with the tongue is not one it will win in the long run, so tongue against the wall of my jaw, clenching my teeth together like a vise grip, I save this tid-bit of information for a more opportune time.
Late afternoon in my part of Alabama is a good time for snakes to be crawling as was evidenced by the next event. Malcolm Christopher bent down to smell a rose. God Love Him. He is a champion. As he bent down, he withdrew quickly having seen a snake. Nobody is surprised at seeing snakes in a garden, or I didn’t think, but of course several of the ladies were near incontinent of their urine when Bill told them it was a copperhead and to steer clear of it. As the sky turns dusky from a looming cloud, the mosquitoes not eaten by the bats are now coming down on my guests. I apologize and lead them to the patio where those who have not fainted from heat stroke, or those who are not in shock from insect bites will be joined by the troopers who made it through the tour. Nellie has, amazingly (occasionally) done a wonderful job of displaying and marketing the food and the wares. She has cut each visitor a rose and placed it in a little glass vase that I bought at Big Lot’s and has tied a cheerful ribbon matching the flower color around each one. No one is impressed but me. Nellie has actually thought things through and has done the whole thing up well. The food is beautiful. The green bread is the perfect color for the cream cheese and olive sandwiches, the pink bread happily serves up the chicken salad beautifully and the yellow bread is a great companion for the cream cheese and pineapple sandwiches, while the little brown wheat bread rings are perfect for the cucumber sandwiches and the two crystal bowls that hold lemonade look gorgeous with the perfect amount of transpiration and Lemon Spice roses floating in a ring of yellow ice.
Among my entourage are perhaps 7-8 gay guys and two, all of whom are trying to maintain some sense of decorum when one of the professors yells out something about steers (I hope we are talking about cows). I really am not expecting a revolt, or anything very near a revolt but some are just not ready to accept that same-sex relationships exist, even in their own families and neighborhoods. I also know full well that my garden is not Martha Stewart’s or Peter Beales, but it is mine and I am proud of all the effort that I, Donald and James have put into it and I am proud of Nellie today. James is beaming because he was Nellie’s partner in cutting the roses as soon as we toured each bed and keeping completely out of sight, and partaking in the surprise for me and the guests. What a fete they felt they had pulled off although I was probably the only one who was impressed.
The fish emulsion that I had put on the roses last week had suddenly become activated by the high humidity and I heard Cheryl tell Larry that she had enjoyed their trip to the beach so much that she felt like she could still smell the ocean.
Commending my sandwiches and vegetable tray, one of the ladies asked where I got the scallions and Nellie, as she is wont to do, quickly responded, “She grow them in her rose garden.” Did I need to get the smelling salts or just hose her down? I cannot tell you how relieved I was to hear a clap of thunder and feel the wind blowing. I knew that soon this disastrous event would come to a halt and that my life and my garden would return to normal. Having left the windows open in the bathroom off the laundry room, I turned to walk inside so that I could close it before the rain started. Donald asked me where I was going. I told him to water the zinnias and pick some garlic. I left to close the window. I never returned. He said good-bye to the guests and I prepared for the next edition of the Rose Prose, the monthly publication from the snobbery rose society, which would discuss my garden in some detail. Jealous old biddies write it, I wanted to say and then I realized – it’s not their fault that I have learned so little in life. It is my fault. I should have known better than to expect anything more from a bunch of women whose experience with roses is limited to smelling what their gardeners have grown and what their maids put in vases.
The pile of horse manure that was hidden behind the garden shed was the black gold of my garden and yet I couldn’t bring myself to tell these arrogant women that I shoveled horseshit and pine grit to get my garden where it is.
Will I do another rose party? You bet. Next week, I am going to serve up tuna pate and some wonderful shrimp that I have been saving for a special occasion. I am going to make a gelatin mold of feta, cottage and parmesan cheese, I will adorn some beautiful cupcakes with roses and serve the most important gardeners in the world – Donald, James, Nellie and myself.