I don’t grow roses anymore. For years I grew beautiful roses with names such as Peace, Betty Boop, American Beauty, Friendship, Graceland, Iceberg, Legend, Paradise and Sheer Bliss. There were roses of every color, red, white, lavender, yellow, pink, salmon. But the last few straggly rose bushes I have will soon be replaced with hydrangeas.
There were two things in my life that my dad acknowledged I had surpassed him in. One was playing Ping-Pong. When I was little, he’d beat me game after game. He never believed in losing to someone less competent than he, even if the opponent was a seven- year-old-daughter.
But the master taught the pupil too well and although it took a while, eventually, I whizzed spinning balls past his ears, just as he had done to me. He never begrudged my victories, except for the one time I bragged once too often and in front of one too many people, that I beat him left-handed. That’s when I got the lecture about being a bad-winner.
The other area dad said I outshone him was with my roses.
I’d watched him tend his roses for years. The most lasting picture I have in my head is of my dad, in his bathing trunks, out in the yard, tending his gardens and rose bushes. I’d be swimming in the pool when a pungent, rancid smell would drift by my nostrils.
“What is that?” I’d yell.
“Manure. It makes the roses grow,” he’d say.
I suppose I could have said, “Oh, yes, that’s good,” but I didn’t. Instead, I yelled, “Well that stinks.”
He’d laugh and carry on.
If the manure smell wasn’t bad enough, the next aroma that wafted by was pesticide.
Dad would load up his sprayer, and like a ghost buster, stomp through the yard, spraying everything that he thought might bloom.
“What’s that?” I’d say, before I did a back dolphin.
“Pesticide and fungicide,” he’d say. “Keeps the bugs and disease away.
Responding with I’m sure he thought was my entire vocabulary, I’d say, “That stinks,” and head under water again.
There was a time when the ill effects of pesticides became media fodder. Apparently studies had shown that pesticides weren’t good for people. As dad approached his ninety’s, my sisters and I laughed and said phooey on those reports, it was the pesticides that were dad’s key to longevity.
Dad would bring beautiful bouquets of his roses into the house. They were perfect. I think rumor had spread through the bug community that to even try to set up housekeeping in one of Mr. Hipkins’ roses was to spell certain doom.
Dad loved taking bouquets of roses to “shut-ins,” members of the congregation that couldn’t make it to church. I was amazed how his roses, in addition to being beautiful, also didn’t have any thorns. The stems were as smooth as a peony’s.
When I stopped by mom and dad’s house in the summer, invariably, I’d go home with my bouquet of roses, stems wrapped in in a wet paper towel and tin foil.
It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I got up the nerve to buy a rose bush. With trepidation, I bought a couple of rose bushes. Then a couple more. Then a dozen more. And soon I had a bed that was just for roses.
I’d ask my dad, “How often should I spray them?”
“Once a week.”
“When should I prune them?”
“In the spring.”
“Should I fertilize them?”
“Everything needs fertilizing.”
It took several years, but eventually my roses began to look like dads. I knew I was hooked when I began wanting the leaves to be perfect too.
When my parents would come to Sunday dinner, I couldn’t wait to walk with dad out to the rose bed. “These are beautiful,” he’d say.
“Thanks. I learned from the best,” I’d say, as we walked along trying without any luck to decide which color we liked best.
Even through my mother’s struggle with leukemia, when dad’s life became a blur of doctor’s appointments and uncertainty, he still tended his roses and brought bouquets into the house.
But eventually my mother died, the family home became too much for an eighty-one-year-old man to care for and we had to move dad to an assisted living residence, and then because of dementia and his inability to walk, to a nursing home.
It was then that our roles reversed and I began taking bouquets of my roses to dad. By then I had learned dad didn’t grow thorn less roses, but that he simply snapped the thorns off. I too, snapped off the thorns, and carried the roses, wrapped in a wet paper towel covered by tin foil, to the home where I’d place them in a vase I kept there.
On days when I could still manage to take dad out, I’d bring him to my house, put him in his wheelchair and wheel him to the back yard and set him in front of my rose garden. I’d make sure he had on his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap to protect his head from the sun. At eighty-something and with dementia, he still knew about skin cancer.
I’d drag the hose across the yard, put on the sprinkler attachment and turn the water on full blast and let dad “garden.” He loved watering my roses. He’d wave the sprinkler back and forth. I pushed his wheelchair so he could reach the whole bed. “Ah, this is wonderful,” he’d say. To which I replied, “So are you.”
One day, after I gave him a bouquet, he studied them carefully and then looked at me and said, “Your roses are better than mine.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Dad died two years ago March. Last summer, seemingly in the plans of God or nature, the rains came. So did black spot, a rose grower’s nemesis. For a while, I sprayed, thinking I could reverse the damage. But I couldn’t. And my rose expert, the only one I cared to ask for a solution, was gone.
There’s a part of me that believes nature knows the cycle of things much better than I. If I thought I could maintain a beautiful rose garden in memory of my dad, I would. But I know my hearts not in it. Without my dad’s admiration and guidance, a rose is a rose, is a rose. And unless I can do them justice, I can’t do them at all.
Note: This is a post that I wrote nearly 10 years ago. It was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Since it is summer and I am going through some of my essays that I have written, I decided to share some of them with you.I hope you enjoy them.