Dahlia “Sam Huston” by Joydeep. Native to Mexico, the plants were discovered by Europeans in the sixteenth century. The Aztecs used their hollow stems for water pipes.

Dahlias

Dahlia “Sam Huston” by Joydeep. Native to Mexico, the plants were discovered by Europeans in the sixteenth century. The Aztecs used their hollow stems for water pipes.

Dahlia “Sam Huston” by Joydeep. The plants were discovered in Mexico by Europeans in the sixteenth century. The Aztecs used their hollow stalks for water pipes.

Narrative choices often are conscious—a character needs to say this or the plot needs that. And sometimes they’re not.

Dahlias were my mother’s favorite flower. She always planted two rows of them by our farm gate. When the school bus dropped me off, I’d stand for a moment, watching the white dust from the road settle on their bright, nodding faces.

My mother’s flowers were large, riotous with colors that grew even brighter when she rinsed them in the kitchen sink for her Sunday flower arrangements.

I wrote dahlias into my novel Forsaken because they were right for the season of the action, and they were right for the narrator’s gift to his girlfriend. Dahlias are bold and eloquent and joyful, things Charlie Mears knew he was not.

But I don’t believe I wrote in dahlias for those reasons only.

As years passed, my mother’s faculties began to fail her. Then came an autumn when she could no longer live by herself on the farm. The mountain winters were too harsh; the risk of her forgetting her medications too high. So Mother moved into my sister’s home in Greensboro.

I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the time. Mother phoned one evening.

“Ross,” she said, “would you go up to the farm and take in my dahlias, before the cold gets them?”

“Sure,” I said.

I was running a small business then, and time was hard to find for the three-hour drive each way. Weekend after weekend passed.

Then one night we had a freeze in Charlottesville. And I remembered.

I drove to the mountains the next morning.

I fetched her garden spade and began to dig. The dahlias were mush.

I dug them anyway, ferrying sunken brown roots to her cellar, hoping that somehow, a few might revive come spring.

They didn’t. Her memory fading, Mother never asked me about them. I shoveled the rotted tubers into a garbage bag.

She never stayed on the farm again, even for the summer months.

This season I planted dahlias for the first time. I planted late, so I water faithfully. I stake and tie them at the slightest lean of a stalk. Evenings I talk to them. I compliment their foliage. I tell them they must be strong against the sun. I tell them they remind me of my mother. I ask if they believe I am forgiven.

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2 Comments

  1. Don’t tell me again that Charlie Mears is nicer than you when you think still of your Mother’s dallias and talk to them. You are a kind and thoughtful man. I am so glad Mary Leigh found you. And I am glad to call you friend.
    Enjoying all the blog posts this AM.
    So terribly sad about the Wisconsin girls. Clearly mental illness. My urge is to write their parents. I hope I take the time.

    • Thanks, Kathleen. You are the best. I don’t know what the situation is between the Wisconsin girls and their families, but I expect letters would be appreciated. My friend Michael Weeks, who worked in juvenile justice in Virginia for 40 years, is the guest writer this week. So please read his blog, “Juvenile Justice,” when it’s posted.

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