The second was to be a host on The Victory Garden. Didn't happen. It's tough to land a job demonstrating the proper way to espalier an apple tree when you've never actually tended any plant that wouldn't fit in a window box.*
All of my adult life, you see, I've been a city apartment dweller with–at best–a south-facing windowsill deep enough for a couple of African violets. So, although I yearned for a bit of earth, I was stuck with Gertrude Jekyll, The Victory Garden, and digging compulsively in my window box with a very tiny spade. Did you know that too much loving care can actually kill an African violet?
Since African violets are supposed to be the one thing still blooming after a nuclear holocaust, when I got my hands on a rose bush I figured the sucker was toast.
Mind you, I'm talking about one tough mofo of a rose. It grows on this property in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood–so-called because of its proximity to the famous Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
This rose sprouted voluntarily in a bed adjacent to the sidewalk, and there survived at least 25 brutal Chicago winters without a lick of attention. It is also an easy target for drunken Cubs fans who stop to pee on it as they stumble away from yet another ignominious defeat. A rose that can handle being pissed on every time the Cubs lose is a rose that wants to live.
When I took control of the flower bed, the rose was alive, but only just. It had one large dead and two small living stems, the tallest being six inches high. Nobody knew what color it was, since nobody in the building could remember it blooming. One year it achieved a bud, which promptly turned black and fell off. If it were a person, this rose would have spent every day in a dark bedroom listening to emo and writing Twilight slash fiction.
After doing a little soil preparation, I moved the whole plant from the shady corner to a sunnier spot on the other side of the bed. I fed it. I watered it. I encouraged it to do its own thing, but told it I was there if it needed me.
And three months later, look what happened.
Just a small bloom, yes; but it burst forth with panache and lasted an entire day until a passing hurricane lopped it off at the neck. So I christened it Marie Stuart.
Not long after, Marie managed another bloom. By then it was nearly September, and in Chicago's climate after September 1st all bets are off as to what the weather might do. As I watered the bed, I found myself humming a favorite song, John Stevenson's "The Last Rose of Summer."
If you were assembling an album to be titled Queen Victoria's Greatest Hits, "The Last Rose of Summer" would jockey for top billing with "Home, Sweet Home" and "The Lost Chord." The lyric–actually a poem by the Irishman Thomas Moore–is a real heart-tugger.
In the first stanza, we note the eponymous blossom, looking lovely but lonely:
'Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.
Sniff. But wait, it gets better. This is a Victorian poem, remember? And what's a Victorian poem without a little premature death?
I'll not leave thee, thou lone one!In case you're made of stone, Moore throws in one more stanza that ponders the futility of life and the cold, cold solace of the grave.
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o'er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow,OMG. ROFCMMBS.**
When friendships decay,
From Love's shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit,
This bleak world alone?
Seriously, it's really a sweet, simple little piece. These days it's more or less the property of schlockmeisters like Charlotte Church and André Rieu. But I'll never forget a performance I heard once in the mid-1990s on World AIDS Day: nothing but a tenor and a piano. The singer, the pianist and about half the men in the audience had watched all or most of their beautiful friends die. In that room, in that context, it was devastating.
Of course, Mother Nature doesn't give two hoots about poetic justice. Well into fall, the dang rose sent up two new shoots and each produced a bud, which meant Exhibit A was at best The Penultimate Rose of Summer. Who's going to set that to music? Nobody, that's who.
When the late arrivals hadn't opened by the time I left for England, I figured frost would get them. Nope. They just got bigger and fatter and then, on Thanksgiving Day: pop.
As dear Edmund Waller wrote, "Go, lovely rose! Dude! Right on!"
*Also, I was the wrong color. Everybody on The Victory Garden was white, in that purebred luminescent way that only old-style Bostonians can be white. The show's sole nod to ethnic diversity, as I recall, was a presenter whose last name was Shimizu, and even she was blonde.
**Rolling On the Floor Clutching My Mourning Brooch and Sobbing.