Photo by Paul Mayer
BY KIMBERLY MAYER
“I can’t do this,” he said.
My father was a smart man. He may have figured it out. Coronavirus was sweeping through his assisted living facility outside Boston, and everyone was being tested, residents and staff alike.
A modest man, in his own quiet way he was extrordinarily accomplished in his life. But at ninety-six years of age he wasn’t up for something unknown that no one knew how to treat. That much he knew. He read The Boston Globe daily.
“Life goes on until it ends,” that’s what dad always said when he was trying to help me with my inconsolable grief in losing others.
Deeply worried about him, yet unable to be there, I ran off to the nursery to fill three large hanging baskets. I needed something to do. Tired of looking at last summer’s geranium mummies, I’d start over with fresh soil, and—on the drive to town I saw it clearly—hanging fuschia. A nectar producing plant with tube-shaped blooms specially adapted to accommodate the long bills of hummingbirds, my father’s littlest friends.
It was there at the nursery when I received the call. Hospice was by dad’s side now and this was my only chance to say goodbye. I think I said, “I’m at the nursery, daddy. You’d be here too, if you were with me, and we’d be extraordinarily happy.” Something nonsensical like that.
Looking back, purchasing plants at nurseries may have been one of my father’s only indulgences. Together we could spend half the day there filling our wagon, and often did.
I was crying so hard, I was grateful to be masked.
At the same time, my project remained important to me. Julie of Julie’s nursery helped me load trays of twenty-four fuschia starts, eight for each basket, into the back of my car. She advised peat be mixed half and half with potting soil, and an organic flowering fertilizer which looked a bit different than my organic fertilizer at home, so I purchased that too. Julie could have sold me the moon that day, anything in the rush to grow my beautiful baskets.
We set up the planting operation on the picnic table at home. The table Bill Maas built when we first arrived on island. Eight fuchsia starts per basket, hung, and watered gently. They looked so lighthearted and promising beneath the eave. In the evenings we covered the baskets with clear plastic, for it’s still cold. And every morning, the unveiling. There is something in that ritual too.
There are two species of hummingbird on island: Anna’s and Rufous. Native to Western coastal regions, Anna’s Hummingbirds are increasingly found here year-round, living in the branches of our coastal scrub. Rufous Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have the longest migration of any bird their size. Wintering in Mexico, spring in California, summers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and zipping over to the Rocky Mountains for fall before returning to Mexico. Feisty and territorial, the visiting reddish brown Rufous try to chase off the resident emerald green and gray Anna’s each year. So we just keep putting up more feeders and more nectar producing plants to accommodate every one.
When we moved onto San Juan Island, mom and dad’s place on The Cape was very much on our mind. Shingled cottages by the sea. Ragtag fleets of boats by the water’s edge in summer. Clams in the muddy sand. And a writing hut where Dad had had a garden shed. The baby mice that once fell onto the brim of dad’s hat when he was puttering around in the shed. He cared for them too.
Dad has always been with me in writing, in gardening, and now, birds. He wrote his memoir, which prompted me to write mine. He explained Master Gardeners to me as “missionaries of the gardening world, Jesuits for all their knowledge,” and I became one. He led by example in the garden, and now he’s got me loving birds.
“What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer…” Richard Powers