Duke Gardens Magnolia (Or, Dear Mom)
Did you know that scientists have discovered fossils of magnolia blossoms that date back 50 million years? What you are looking at in this picture here, what you have cupped in your own hands, what you have pressed your nose down into so that its petals enveloped your face, is actually a dinosaur. A prehistoric flower. An ancient bloom. A survivor of things we can no longer see.
You tried to find your place here, but you failed. That’s okay. Did you know that magnolias can bloom as far north as Michigan? But not the Southern Magnolia, with its showy green leaves like cups holding the sky, it’s blossoms so fragrant you can smell them from a mile away in the heat of a summer day. But that was never really your style anyways, was it? To show off your beauty, to wear it so everyone could see. One time you took me shopping and ended up buying yourself a jean skirt embroidered in huge metallic flowers. It was an a-line skirt, slim at the waist, belled out at your calves – I still remember how beautiful you looked in it, twirling for me in the dressing room. But once we got home, the dress never left the closet.
I learned from you to love beautiful things. But unlike you, I never hoarded them away, saving them for some unknown special occasion. Just the other day, I bought a new dress and changed into it in the parking lot, using a beach towel in the back of the car to cover me as I disrobed. There was no special occasion. There was no birthday, no party. There was just me, feeling beautiful in a new dress. For all your fixation on beauty, you never did like to have eyes on you, but I can feel eyes on me like summer sun on my shoulders, and I love them both, though not one more than the other.
You said it’s the heat that drove you away. It’s god awful, you said. Punishing. And I agree with you. But I know it was something else, too – the way your grown children become less your children when they are too close by, the way their proximity creates a distance you never knew could be there. Our lives were not your life. The same way a blossom, when it opens, is separate from the tree it grows on, something different entirely, even if it’s born of the same seed.
I don’t know yet what it means to grow older. Nor do I understand what it means to lose things the way you do – keys, items on your to-do list, memories. The mind is designed to hold on to these things, the way petals cup tiny pools of water or seeds from their own stamen. But eventually the petal disintegrates, the water seeps through, the seeds drift away. Elizabeth Bishop called it an art, the art of losing. “It isn’t hard to master,” she wrote. But of course, she was lying, because it is hard to lose you, the way of your laughter and the way, even, of your naiveté – the way you pick up people’s accents without meaning to and wanted to give my brother a bar mitzvah even though we were Catholic, because what did Catholics have to look forward to? The way you could eat buttered toast and ice cream for dinner with a glass of white wine and not be apologetic, the way you could draw people to you – a whirling and wild concentric force, before you pushed them away again for the sin of loving you and sent them spinning about, like leaves plunging from the magnolia tree, confused and disordered in their falling, as if they are not falling at all but trying to float back up to the branch they fell from.