The blooming breaks, the “loves me, loves me not” petals wilt, and growing up becomes a continual changing of seasons. Memory too, in this way, sweetly blooms and bitterly breaks. I wait in the garden, for the seasons to change again, for the renewal of Spring.
I go to the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, California, looking for a past season.
My earliest memories are in my grandmother’s garden. Open space, fields of grass that seem greener. Roses and pretend tea parties, dressed in princess costumes. Running away from nap time. Getting pushed on the swing set until I could push myself with the straightening and bend of determined legs. Sprinklers set to a routine schedule: running through the showering water holding grandma’s hand like it’s a baptism.
Contrast to the childhood backyard I’ve unwillingly outgrown, Huntington Gardens is a place for the public. There is no one holding my hand and the formality of today’s garden visit is memorial, not baptism.
Huntington Gardens is vast, an outpouring wide oasis and a variety of sections dedicated to different flora. There’s a hush and hum that accompanies stepping onto the property. The regular rhythm of honks and hurriedness of Los Angeles slows to a stop here.
There is nowhere to hide my loneliness in this place of couplings: friends, lovers, parent and child, grandparent and grandchild. Nearly compulsively, I dial my grandma’s telephone number as I walk in, it’s the same as it has always been.
It’s muscle memory:
“I wish you were here.”
I don’t know if anyone nearby heard me telling my grandma how much I missed her or the disappointment in my voice when I told her goodbye. Perhaps my solitude is masked as confidence: I walk quickly, my stride is directed to the rose garden. Any lingering feelings of sadness washed away with determination to see the roses. Perhaps that is what the garden visiting strangers saw: a young woman on a mission to smell the roses.
The first time I visited these gardens, in the company of my grandparents, we mutually marveled at the rosy flora. Rows of elegant, salmon-colored roses. The beauty ranged from creamsicle orange to passionate red roses too. The blushes of pink allured me but the yellow roses have always been my grandma’s favorite. The fragrance aided the feelings of tenderness, the romance of life, living in admiration.
The second time I frequented these gardens, I found myself again frozen at the roses. Time melted there. Beads of sweat fell down my back as I found my way through the maze of roses. Yet, somehow, I was perfectly oriented in the frozen heat of time. Walking through the garden, my worries about growing up stood still, even if only momentarily. The distance between “then” and “now,” “now” and the “future” no longer felt like a sharp pain but a bug bite. I was able to position myself correctly then, ignoring the itch, standing present. In a state of brief peace, anxiety gone, singing the garden song.
Now, I find myself returning to the same place.
Majority of the clouds are stretched thin against the blue sky but some clouds demand more attention, curled in full, creating a bundle above the green below. I ignore the map clutched in my hand, barely noticing the dried bush of confetti-like, magenta petals. Not caring enough to look for a name tag, I mentally label it “party is over plant,” marching onwards.
I take a staccato pause for the gardener and his truck full of dead leaves. I barely watch as the man carefully backs up in his truck, making note of the maintenance mandatory for the mass beauty this garden exhibits. No mind, as I walk forward, anticipating a memory about to come.
There is a lawn, where a dozen statues inhabit. These marbled people command space and they get it in the fields that would be ideal for a serious game of tag. The last time I was here, in the company of a loved little one, we paid a visit to each statue. Today, as always, the statues stand still. And I too, unwillingly.
“AREA CLOSED. DO NOT ENTER” the sign reads, protected by a low hanging chain that is begging for an adolescent double-dog-dare bravery.
I continue on, no braver, rounding the corner of cyclamen.
The patch of (at their boldest) fuchsia and (at their faintest) pale pink flowers, dusted by dirt. The dozen or so cyclamen are folding in on themselves, their petals fragile. Soft. Gentle. Delicate.
Delicately, I press past the cyclamen and a grandma and granddaughter duo sitting on a bench together. The grandma speaks with care, the authority often asserted with age, and the language of love – that is: an interest carefully preserved in her pitch. I don’t hear much of their conversation (I’m trying to break my habit of eavesdropping; I used to pick up the home phone and eavesdrop on the adult’s conversations – but I’m an adult now, supposedly, so I’m trying to wiggle out of childish tricks). I suspect when the grandmother asks the child, “And then you have your sleepover?” – she is pledging her unconditional love, regardless of the season.
It’s a bold assumption, I know. As I curve around the bend, I am expecting another confidence of mine to be affirmed: the technicolor of roses, the promises of their petals, and the past season I came looking for.
“WORK IN PROGRESS. PLEASE STAY OUT” greets me. A larger sign, more dominant than the one before. It is a punch to the butterflies in my stomach. There are no roses. Color depleted. Thorns taunt. The trimmed bare branches and tops tease. I want to laugh but I feel weirdly defeated. I sink onto a nearby bench, listening to the irregular sloshing water pattern of a fountain.
I don’t know what to make of it. On one hand, it feels ironic and horribly funny that the very place I came seeking out my own nostalgia would have a sign boldly commanding me to “PLEASE STAY OUT.” I want to, desperately, draw a conclusion between my memories and the roses but there are no roses here for me today. Instead, there is only a sign of “WORK IN PROGRESS” – which is, possibly, the only conclusion logical enough to reach: growing up is a work in progress. The absence of roses reminds me so. Eventually, I get up, only to find my own name among the disappointment, literally.
“Princess Alexandra of Kent” a plaque reads in front of a naked shrub.
And then, miraculously, right on the other side of “Alexandra,” purple appears in complete richness. The petals curl into their deep color. Dark and wrinkled at the edges. They are irises. Beloved and true. A green, freckled with dirt, stem covers the plaque but I see the most important part, what I’ve been searching for: “Iris. Grandma’s Purple —” it reads.
Grandma, always right there, in the garden. Coming of age circulates between the harshness of winter and the sureness of summer. But, for now, it is Spring. Somewhere in between. And there is comfort in knowing the roses will bloom again, eventually