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The View from Mary's Farm

A Message from Edie Clark

March 25, 2011

Not My Grandmother’s Paperwhites

My grandmother had a sunporch and around the edges, in front of the windows, she had copper trays filled with pebbles where she grew paperwhites, small white trumpet-shaped blooms emerging from bright green stalks. It seemed like a miracle to me, to see such beauty grow up out of gravel.

When I rented my first apartment, a small studio on the second floor of a brownstone in downtown Philadelphia, my grandmother came to visit – a long journey, carefully planned and bravely executed. She carried with her up the stairs and into my new home a brown bag with marble chips and four big bulbs. My first paperwhites. She also brought a wide blue bowl. “These will make you feel like you aren’t in the city,” she said as she emptied the chips into the bowl and nestled the big papery bulbs down in. She set the bowl under the kitchen faucet and turned on the tap. When the water was just visible among the stones, she carefully carried the bowl to my windowsill. “There,” she said, “you will have flowers soon, to make you think of spring.”
The bulbs gave up quickly and grew tall, then bunches of small, pure white blossoms opened, dots of bright yellow in the center of each one. My tiny apartment soon filled with that strange, exotic fragrance, not sweet, not spicy, I can’t put my finger on it – maybe musky – but distinct, nothing quite like it. I can never smell paperwhites but that I don’t think of my grandmother, her copper windowsills and her journey up the stairs with the brown paper bag in her arms.
Ever since, I can’t imagine winter without paperwhites. First thing after Thanksgiving I go to Agway and buy ten or twenty bulbs, choosing carefully. I want bulbs that are hard and weighty, ones with a bud of green pushing out of the top. At home, I prepare several bowls. I keep the marble chips, year to year, and hunt yard sales in summer for interesting and colorful bowls. A dish of bulbs just starting up make nice Christmas gifts but mostly, I want them for myself. I repeat the whole process about three times over the course of the winter, keeping my windowsills cheerful and my kitchen filled with that grandmother fragrance. On good years, I have paperwhites right through March.
Sometimes, though, in those early years, my paperwhites used to grow up so tall that I would have to tie them with a ribbon to keep them from falling over. Then one day some years ago, an older woman came for tea and, casting a practiced eye on my windowsills, she said, “You should give your paperwhites a bit of gin. That will cure them.” She was a member of a prominent garden club and I always listened to what she had to say to me about plants, indoors and out.
“Gin?” I asked. I wanted to be sure I had heard her correctly.
“Yes,” she said without so much as a smile, “when they are up about three inches, add about a half a shot glass of gin to a cup of water and give it to them. Next time you water, repeat and you’ll find that they won’t get so leggy. The gin stunts their growth and they’ll bloom more in scale with their stalks.”
So I went out and bought some cheap gin. And gave it a try. It worked like a charm. Later, I learned you can also use vodka or whiskey, tequila, even rubbing alcohol. But somehow I prefer the gin. The only trouble is, instead of that mysterious fragrance, they make the room smell slightly boozy, which can be a little embarrassing when folks come to visit. So I tell them it’s the paperwhites, which, of course, if they know anything about paperwhites, they know that’s not what they smell like. Still, I like to add the gin, it works really well. But with that nip of booze, they are definitely not my grandmother’s paperwhites.

Selected Works

In 1992, the Bishop of Worcester condemned St. Joseph's Catholic Church and ordered it closed. The parishioners refused to leave, sleeping on cots and on the hard pews. For thirteen months this was their life. In July of 1993, they were removed by the police. In many ways this was the blossoming of their faith. Originally published in Yankee Magazine in November 1993.
Growing up, nothing I could do seemed to please my mother and nothing she said made sense to me. But when my mother, on the threshold of death, came to live with me, I found what seemed to have been lost forever. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, May 1995
(The follow-up article to Miracle at St. Joseph's.) The Bishop turned to them and said, "Your prayers have been answered, the hard hearts have softened." Originally published in Yankee Magazine, December 1996
A reflection on the power of cooking and friendship and the concept of family. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, November/December 2007
Memorial Day, Harrisville, New Hampshire 1995. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, May 1996
My Articles
Libraries occupy a special place in the heart of a town. Evening events at the library give a strong sense of community and make it seem like a great place to live. And in the wake of the online revolution small town libraries have found a way to not only survive but to be indispensable.
In December 2008 an epic ice storm left virtually the entire state of New Hampshire without power. The residual effects of that storm paralyzed the Monadnock Region almost through Christmas. A first person account.
In 1994, sixteen-year-old Billy Best was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. After several treatments, he ran away to avoid chemotherapy. What happened after that may have been a miracle.
Roxanne Quimby once lived primitively in the Maine woods. Today she owns 90,000 acres of those woods, and her goal is to create a national park to preserve the landscape forever. So why do so many people wish she'd just go away?
Multi-million dollar border stations are rising along our line between US and Canada. What was once the "friendliest border" has become deadly serious.
Renowned short story writer, Andre Dubus, reflects on the accident that cost him his legs.
A trip to Poland discovers a beloved family friend
An elegy for the master of the short story.
Fall comes to The County
Thousands seek healing from this innocent, comatose child.
A complete listing of articles published since 1978
An encounter with a sick fox brings a young woman to the heart of her grief