One of the most fascinating places Dad used to take us was to his friend’s house outside Charlottesville. Emily was a biology teacher at the school where my dad taught English for almost 30 years. She passed a few years ago, but my sisters and I always thought she was supremely cool with her short hair spiked and her laid back way of speaking and her wild projects. Her home was an extension of that cool.
Her house specifically was incredible. My understanding was that her husband, an architect, designed it himself and salvaged loads of stuff from different sites to pull together the materials for the angular masterpiece. But even more remarkable were the yard and gardens in the periphery.
Dad worked for Emily some summers after she retired from teaching. She ran a small organic produce farm that sold fruits and vegetables to local businesses. He would help her weed or pick and she’d make him lunches of eggplant pancakes or pheasant eggs. He said seeing what she whipped up to eat was his favorite part. But I don’t think I ever saw her yard as a functioning farm. All of that was finished by the time I was old enough to remember going over to visit.
What I remember is pulling up behind the house in Dad’s truck and getting out to see Emily wandering out of the back door, slouching like the trouble makers did in high school with her hands in her pockets. She would hug Dad or something and then ask if we wanted to take a ride.
We’d hop into her beat-up golf cart and she’d floor the gas pedal, hurtle through her enormous yard and lurch to a stop in front of a strange series of gray tubes of what looked like mosquito netting. Basil, she said. Down the field were her heirloom tomatoes, always the unusual shapes and always the unusual colors. Never just red and round. Back in the golf cart and rattling off again toward a hill or a shock of trees.
She would slow and lean her whole body out of the window to point out a certain tree to Dad, park halfway up a hill to walk to the crest and point out a new flower for which she was trying to find the right place. Her yard had trellises and raised beds and all sorts of venues on which plants could climb or run. Even when I was working at the garden center in the summers, I didn’t know enough to identify everything she had there. She and Dad switched seamlessly from botanical names to goofy colloquial names and pointed at things that I couldn’t discern.
She searched everywhere for unusual plants. She scoured garden centers and propagated her own, raised from seed and scavenged for seedlings wherever she went. The plant I remember best from my last visit to her house in the summer before Taylor and I moved to New York was her Oakleaf Hydrangea.
Hydrangeas are common enough. They grow tall and broad and burst with clusters of blooms; white, pink or blue depending on the acidity of the soil. Normally they have green, roundish heart-shaped leaves with toothy serrated edges. A somewhat less common variety has blooms that are more individual and leaves that are larger and lobed like huge oak leaves.
The last time I visited Emily, she pulled us over or slowed and pointed from her little golf cart numerous of times at her Oakleaf Hydrangeas. They were everywhere. Twenty-five or thirty plants she showed us. Grayish-green leaves and subdued rosy blooms, they sprouted all over growing to a wide variety of shapes and sizes. She pulled over one time in particular and stopped the cart for a moment, pointing out to a larger bush that flowered at the top of a hill in the shade of some larger trees. “This is the first one. I passed it on the side of the road one day and pulled over, dug it up, brought it home and planted it. I’ve been digging it up and replanting it, growing the new ones from cuttings. They all came from this one.” Emily dug a feral hydrangea from the roadside and planted it, watched it grow, transplanted it, planted cuttings, moved those, planted more cuttings and covered her entire yard. She still told the story and relished doing so but the plant was a part of the landscape. Which begs the question: at what point, if any, was it a transplant no longer?
Peter is a native of Orange County and the son of an English teacher and a librarian with freakishly eclectic musical tastes. He studied music in college and subsequently moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.