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The View from Mary's Farm

Mary's Farm for July 2012

July 7, 2012

Phantom Dahlias

A man down the road grows dahlias, the magnificent and ancient starbursts of color that only really dedicated northern gardeners will grow. Ted and his wife, Wendy, are schoolteachers in another state. Several years ago, they bought this small dormered Cape for a summer place. It faces the mountain and was at that time surrounded by bare, uncultivated ground. Once they purchased the property, they wasted no time in turning up the soil and planting a flower garden which now rises up from behind the stone wall in colorful display, causing the occasional car to slow as it passes by.

Less prominent but no less spectacular are the dahlias. On a triangle of land across the road from the house, with the full view of Mount Monadnock as backdrop, Ted opened up a long row into which he placed the tropic-loving tubers (once beloved by the Aztecs) that would later in the summer become a broad stripe of color across the cool New England landscape. They grew tall, their flowers opening in almost any color you can imagine tangerine, lemon chiffon, Mexican orange, blood red, pure white. Some blooms are big as dinner plates, some small as crabapples but all of them blaze in vivid colors. Teds uncle got him started, way long ago, way before Ted brought his gardening prowess to this hill. His uncle, gone now, gave him some dahlia tubers to get him started. Now Ted grows something like 175 plants in his long thin garden, 90 or so varieties, but the one from his uncle blooms purple. Ted says that when it opens, its like seeing an old friend. He believes that flowers are connections, to people past and present.

So when I drive by, I see him down there in his colorful paradise, communicating with his old friends, human and floral. Built like a wrestler, he works steadily, long hours, his bare back browning in the sun. A few years ago, Ted added a beehive and painted it a bright, sunny yellow. While he works, the bees buzz from bloom to bloom as he steps carefully from flower to flower, fussing, tending. During the summer, he ties their bobbing heads to tall stakes to keep them from falling over (some of them grow to be seven feet tall!) and he weeds around their roots, waters them if its a dry year. His yield is terrific. They are in full flower all summer long.

Most gardeners (including myself) think dahlias are too much work planting the delicate tubers in the spring, digging them up in the fall, tagging them for variety and color, and storing them in the cellar until spring. Its a notion that Ted scoffs at. He says only, The earth smiles in flowers. He loves the joy he gets from just watching them grow and he especially loves sharing the dahlias with others. While hes working, sometimes hes thinking about who in town might enjoy some of this color in a vase on their table. I like to make people smile, he says. On Sunday afternoons, before leaving to go back to their other life, Ted and Wendy fill their car with bundles of these dazzling flowers and start out on their route. As if on angels wings, they make their phantom deliveries. Occasionally during the summer, while Im working at my desk, I hear something on the porch, the dogs bark a bit. By the time I get out there, no one is there but on the table a big showy bunch of dahlias greets me. Or, if Im not home, this is what I come home to. Believe me, I smile.

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