- Something Growing
"Well if you do find the place," my mother said, "I'd like you to bring me back two things: a photograph, and something growing from the garden."
It was spring in Cape Town, and she was lying in the bed where she always lay, the metal cot sides up and a blue cushion strapped between the knees to prevent her legs from crossing and dislocating the hip.
"They run up and down," she said, watching two gray squirrels through the sliding glass doors. "Actually no, not up and down. They run up the long branch and then on to the next tree. Look at that one, just rippling along!"
Her room was upstairs, level with the tree. So the view from her bed was of the life of its branches. This tree and all the others in the garden were the main reason she lived there, a nursing home chosen for its big trees, for the quality of light through morning leaves, for the joy of squirrels and birds, and for the fat koi swimming in the pond. All day they would drift in the dark water, bright torches of gold and red. If you dipped your hand in, they'd come up to the surface to hold your finger for a moment in their soft fish mouths, then dive back down into the deep.
Aside from such things, there was little to recommend about the facilities. Among various problems with the management, what particularly disturbed my mother was that they did not like pigeons. One afternoon she called me, crying, out of breath, furious, heartbroken, to say she'd been told she was no longer allowed to feed the birds that came to her verandah. Why? They make a mess.
I phoned the owner and explained that my mother, Elizabeth Martin, called the birds by name and knew their characteristic ways and plumage. That at more than ninety years old, she lay immobilized in this bed, most of the people she remembered were dead, the hours were so long, and the world had become strange. But the ring-necked doves, the turtledoves, and the rock pigeons returned each day and she could ask the nurses to feed them. When the owner remained unmoved, I said, Please try to imagine this is your own mother. Please understand. She has cared for others all her life and now she must submit to being washed and dressed, looked after in every detail. But she can still care for those birds, and she must. She is a mother. Then I mentioned St. [End Page 93] Francis (they are Catholics). I begged. The call was inconclusive, but the owner seemed to have softened a little. Afterwards I continued to buy birdseed, and the nurses, who were mostly kind, conspired to feed the doves and pigeons anyway.
On the particular day when I told my mother about the idea of visiting Black-ridge, the birds had entirely occupied the verandah, and the room was filled with the violet smell of the tree she loved: the fragrance of syringa blossoms. From where I sat in the unused wheelchair beside her bed, the sweetness of those tiny stars was all the smell of a long warm afternoon in another garden. How I used to wish, in those days, that I could pick them, make posies for my dolls, even if they wilted so soon. But the delicate fragrance of syringa was mixed inextricably with the resonance of my paternal grandfather's warning.
"Every part of the tree is poisonous," he would say, every time he visited. "Every part."
Our syringas were the tallest trees in the garden, the canopy of those early years. But the smell of the flowers is infused, even now, with my granddad's words. He had studied botany and loved trees, and so complete was his conviction that I never wondered to find out whether he was right. For he was a man accustomed to authority, and I was a girl then, wary of transgression.
These days the tree evokes a different prohibition. Like black wattle, lantana, and bugweed, the syringa tree, Melia azedarach, is...