Mary Ann Ellis

Even when I stand in my front yard, I can smell the Confederate jasmine blooming out back on its own private trellis. It towers above my head. It grows on the fence beside the hammock, too, and disappears among the leaves of the oaks up overhead. If it’s blooming, you’ll know it. Years ago, when I first planted it, Mr. Calahan assured me that it would grow anywhere, even though it prefers full sun. That plant has proved him right many times over. 

When I walk onto the back deck, the sweet smell of petunias wafts to my nose. I love the deep purple variety and have them in pots on the front and back decks. Their red, white, and pink cousins grow in the yard. Many of them volunteer, and we’re delighted when they do. Right now, we have a white one thriving all by itself in the back garden. We like to think that these petunias are descendants of Larry’s mother’s flowers that she once grew here.

Out in the back yard I have Grandma Nichols’ wine and milk lilies and nearby are Grandpa Hayes’ pink roses—small ones that bloom only once a year, but most gloriously. Mama brought me the sycamore tree out front when it was just a twig in a duck-shaped plastic flowerpot. We never dreamed it would grow so big or play such a role in our family’s life. We may have enjoyed it more than any other plant on the place. Years ago, Stuart climbed in it when he was so small that his Uncle Jakey had to climb it with him to keep him safe. The younger grandchildren also enjoyed the easy toeholds of its low branches. 

The silver maple is just now in full leaf, later than everything else as usual. Jakey planted it to memorialize his cat Sammy, which he lovingly buried beneath the tree. Every time I look at the tree, I think of Jakey and Sammy. It was Calvin who planted the magnolia down by the grape vine that Larry’s daddy planted. 

Recently I stood before a rack of seed packets, and suddenly the multi-colored sweet peas sent me spiraling back through the years to my childhood and to Aunt Jincey’s garden. I could almost smell those multi-colored sweet peas. I bought two large packets. I want her legacy in my yard, too. 

Over the years Larry and I have planted many a flower and vegetable, from the blueberries to butterfly bushes—buddleias, if you care to be botanically correct. Butterflies come as a bonus and make me think of flying flowers. Something about spring puts me in the mood to dig my hands in the rich black dirt of South Georgia, to smell its splendor, to bury many seeds therein. And I have.

My ancestors lie buried in that dirt as well, out at Union Springs Cemetery in Jeff Davis County or up the road a piece in the Hazlehurst City Cemetery. Many, many Hayes and Nichols relatives sleep beneath the stones in those peaceful places. We all come from the same gene pool. I remember Mama’s hands digging in that dirt, tucking a flower here or a tomato plant there. When we visited relatives, Mama always toured their yards to check out the newest plants and take cuttings home. Our hunger for the dirt runs deep. Does that come from a gene pool as well? So many of us have had hands roughened from working in the dirt, often without gloves. We come from farmer stock. Perhaps that explains some deep unity that we all share. 

Perhaps it explains also the deep anger that rises in me when I see stores neglecting their plants during the spring every year. Not all of the stores, mind you, but too many of them. Last week, Larry and I went to Savannah for a doctor’s appointment and stopped by Lowes on Abercorn Street. The minute I walked into the garden center, I wanted to pick up the nearest hose and start watering. Those poor plants were literally dying of thirst. The crazy part is that the store almost kills the plants and then puts them on sale. Who wants to buy half-dead flowers anyway? I just want someone to take care of them. That farmer’s blood running in my veins screams in pain.