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Rosemary had invited a few friends over for an afternoon party, and asked that they dress in the style of the Roaring Twenties. The guests had all arrived together, and after admiring each other’s costumes became restive.

“What’s the entertainment, Rosemary?” Cecil asked. He wore a straw boater and a pink bow tie with his old seersucker suit. He hadn’t worn that suit since graduating from seminary, and the jacket felt tight across the shoulders. “I don’t see a jazz quartet, and I haven’t been offered a martini.”

Rosemary explained, “I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it, so this year I decided to have a little garden party on the first day of summer, to mark it properly. And you’re just going to love the entertainment, Cecil. We’re going to read The Great Gatsby out loud, in parts! Clyde, you’ll be Gatsby, Howie can be Nick, Franklin is Tom, I’ll be Daisy, Dana can be Jordan Baker, and Lizzie is Myrtle Wilson.”

The guests shifted uneasily. Lizzie looked irritated.

“Anyway, you left me out,” Cecil observed.

Rosemary closed her eyes to think. “You can be Wilson,” she said slowly. She held out a hand, imploring. “I read Gatsby every spring, and I woke up one morning not too long ago and said to myself, ‘Oh! I’ve forgotten to read Gatsby!’ Haven’t you ever done that? So that’s why I invited you all here, on the longest day of the year. Now, follow me down to the pond.”

“It’s sure going to feel like the longest day of the year,” Frank murmured in Dana’s ear.

Rosemary led the party down to the pond behind her house, a pond that once served to water a field of cattle. It had since been domesticated. The field was planted with bluegrass and flower beds to set off Rosemary’s two-story yellow brick Colonial with its emerald front door and matching shutters.

The back lawn, shining green and flawless, ran in a smooth green ribbon that rippled around mosaic birdbaths and gravel paths before circling the pond. Pools of bright flowers clustered around the water on the far side, and on the near side was a casual scatter of Adirondack chairs, ingeniously designed of wood-grained plastic. A long table nearby was covered with a white cloth that swept the grass and blew gently when the wind stirred. It held a silver punch bowl the size of a baby’s bath, an equally large silver epergne filled with blue hydrangeas, a tall white cake under a glass dome, covered platters of hors d’oeuvres, fruit, and a scattering of clear glass punch cups, napkins, and china plates.

Rosemary turned when she reached the pond and opened her mouth to speak when a cry of alarm, followed by loud laughter, stopped her.

“Dana broke her face!” Lizzie announced.

“What?”

“Her heel snapped off, right in the lawn. I wish you’d seen! Her face twisted into the awfullest knot as she caught herself! Frank can’t stop laughing.”

Frank was doubled over.

Lizzie said, “She might have broken every bone in her face. Is your face all right, Dana?”

Dana, disgruntled, kicked off both shoes and smoothed her white linen dropped-waist dress. She’d ordered it from J. Peterman, and fear of smearing it on the grass had helped keep her upright. Dana had thought herself the essence of the Jazz Age until she saw Rosemary, in her silver beaded dress with the matching head band.

The party assembled near the table by the pond.

“Let’s go fishing,” Lizzie said. “Got any poles?”

“No. Anyway, we’re going to read Gatsby.”

“Who’s that?” Dana gestured across the lawn, to the sloping yard that ended in a bed of pink and yellow flowers, across to a rougher yard in front of a small dusty house. Two little girls presided over a table of glassware, toys, and household items. “A mad tea party?”

“That’s Nick’s place!” Rosemary said happily. “Isn’t it perfect that I have a little shack next to my place, like Gatsby had next to his? I should have sent a guy over to mow the lawn before my party.”

“They’re selling things,” Lizzie said. “It appears to be a yard sale. I wonder if they have a fishing pole for sale?” She drifted across the lawn, stepped through the flower bed, and walked up the slope toward the girls.

“It’s a perpetual yard sale,” Rosemary told Cecil. “Those people are out there all the time. I can’t imagine what they’re peddling.” She sank into one of the plastic chairs and waved her copy of The Great Gatsby toward the chair beside hers. He sat.

Dana followed Lizzie, but stopped at the flower bed rather than walk across it with bare feet. “These are some unusual flowers,” she called. “What are they, Rose?”

Rosemary sighed, and let her book fall to the grass beside her chair. “Anyway,” Cecil said, patting her arm, “you only have one copy of the book. We can hardly read parts with only one copy.”

Rosemary stood and walked to the flower bed, with Cecil behind her. Frank, Howie, and Clyde were pouring themselves drinks and sampling the hors d’oeuvres.

Rosemary and Cecil surveyed the flower bed with Dana. “They look like teacups!” Dana said. She had a smidge of red lip gloss a bit to the east of her mouth.

“Those are my teacup tulips,” Rosemary explained. “They aren’t really tulips, of course—after all it’s June, right?  They are a hybrid lily, but I call them my teacup tulips. Aren’t they darling?”

Each lily had a rounded, scallop-edged cup, yellow with deep pink striping, and one petal on each curled around sharply like a handle on a teacup.

Rosemary allowed them a moment to enjoy the novelty lilies. “Now come along, both of you, and let’s read Gatsby. We’ll pass the book and read it in chunks.”

“Hey!” Frank said, “These chicken livers are delicious. Are they bad or good for cholesterol?”

“Save me some of those livers for bait,” Lizzie said. She descended the slope, stepped through the flower bed, and walked over to show off her acquisition—a pink plastic Barbie fishing pole. “This wasn’t up for sale, but I gave the kids $2 to rent it. Now be a pal, Frank, and thread one of those livers on that hook. It’s okay to put the bacon on, too. Oh, and I told the kids they should come over and have a piece of cake.”

“Thank you,” Rosemary said. She did not sound grateful.

Everyone sat and watched as Lizzie made a tentative cast into the pond. “Aren’t there any fish?” she asked. “Look how the chicken liver and bacon made a greasy spot on the surface. What fish could resist that?”

“Come sit, Lizzie,” Rosemary said. “We’re about to start reading, and we need you. There aren’t any fish. Let’s read, and we’ll skip all the gray, ashy parts. We don’t need the Wilsons, really, do we?  Or the trips into the city? We’ll just read the parts about the parties, and the music, and the moonlight.”

“Can’t stop now,” Lizzie said. “I’ve invested two bucks in this fishing pole, and I’m determined to catch a fish, if this pond will produce one.”

To distract her from Gatsby, Rosemary’s guests brought her plates of food, and three cups of champagne punch from the silver bowl. Howie and Dana walked across to invite the yard sale girls to come have some treats. They came, blonde and freckled and solemn, accepted plates filled with the white cake, and disappeared.

“I suppose I’ll have to go over there and buy my plates back,” Rosemary said.

“Hush, they’ll hear you,” Howie scolded. “Do you think they’re deaf?”

Rosemary stretched her legs out in front of her and crossed them at the ankle. “All right, Howie. You just go over there and get my plates back. Give them however much money they want, because those are my granny’s china pattern.”

Howie made binoculars of his hands and trained them on the yard sale table. “They’ve disappeared. No! There they are. They’re on the other side of the yard.”

“What happened to the sun? Wasn’t there a sun shining a minute ago?” Rosemary felt that her entire party was slipping away from her. She had meant for it to be so nice.

“It’s behind a cloud,” Cecil said. He pushed the copy of Gatsby beneath Rosemary’s chair with his foot and handed her a cup of punch.

“We’ll have to make our own sunshine!” Rosemary stood and took a deep swallow from the cup in her left hand. The drink made her close her eyes and throw her head backwards.

Cecil steadied her by placing his hand on her spine. Her dress felt like a damp silver cobweb, with hard knots of beading caught up in the threads. He wondered if it would break and pull away like cobweb when he removed his hand.

“I think the clouds are here to stay, but anyway, how would you make sunshine?”

“Don’t know yet. Why is Frank eating the hydrangeas? I thought he liked the livers.”

“Too much cholesterol, and he thinks the hydrangeas look like raspberry snow cones.”

Rosemary shook her head. “He mustn’t eat the flowers. Did you hear that Dana broke her face?”

“I did hear that. Her face looks fine now. See? She’s drinking champagne punch from one of your teacup tulips.”

“We mustn’t eat and drink the flowers. That’s not what they’re for. Let’s go get some breakfast.”

“You’ve just polished off a plate of cake. Anyway, it’s only five o’clock. And it’s the longest day of the year, so you want to see it out to the end, don’t you? What do you want breakfast for?”

“Here they come!” Howie announced. “And I think they’re bringing your granny’s plates back, so you should beg their pardon.”

The girls carried their plates and placed them on the table. “Thank you for the cake,” the oldest child, who was possibly nine or ten years old, said. She patted her smaller sister on the back encouragingly.

“Thank you,” the sister whispered. She had tiny front teeth, like pearl beads. She raised her eyes, a pale gray-blue, to look at Rosemary in her silver dress. “It’s a beautiful birthday party.”

“You’re welcome,” Rosemary said. “Only it’s not a birthday.”

The smaller sister held up a cloudy silver bud vase from the yard sale table. It held two blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace.

“Are these for Miss Rosemary?” Howie asked. “Isn’t that lovely? Let’s set them right here, beside the cake. Aren’t they wonderful, Rosemary?”

“Yes.”

Lizzie came up from the pond and handed the Barbie fishing pole to the older sister. “Thanks for letting me borrow it,” she said. “I didn’t get a single bite.”

The girls took the fishing pole and ran home, leaping over the teacup tulips like yearlings.

“Wasn’t that nice?” Dana said. “What sweetie pies. What are their names?”

“Let’s skip the gray and ashy parts,” Rosemary said, waving her hand. “Let’s get some breakfast. I love breakfast.”

Cecil rolled his eyes. “Rosemary, what is it with breakfast?”

“It’s the most important meal of the day. I feel like having a toastel struder.”

“We’ll get you a struder, my sweet. We’ll get you several struder. What’s the matter? Is your face broken?”

Rosemary considered this carefully. “I believe it is,” she said sadly, and she pressed one of her white hands with its brilliant silver nails, hard and shining as ice, to her cheek.

END

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themonkscorner.com

Until I visited Santa Fe I had no idea that there was a patron saint of cakes and cookies. But sure enough, there he was in a little shop that sold a really astounding variety of saintly goods – Saint Von Nicholas of Myra.

Often when someone travels from our office they bring back candies or treats from the place they visited—salt water taffy from the beach, chocolates from Vienna. In keeping with that same spirit, I picked up one to the little St. Von Nick icons as an office gift. Since he was the patron of cakes and cookies, I decided we could hang him up in the area where we always share treats at work and maybe he’d have a beneficial effect on our supply of baked goods.

When I got back to the office I hung him up and sent an e-mail message to the department:

“Rather than bring you back something perishable from Santa Fe, I elected to bring a gift that (I hope) will keep on giving: A small wooden icon of St. Von Nicholas of Myra, Patron of Cakes and Cookies. I will hang St. VN over the usual cake & cookie place, and if we’re all very, very good perhaps he will bless us. Soon.”

When I arrived at work the next morning at 8:30, a colleague said, “Vicki! Did you see? The saint worked!” A pan of brownies graced the treats counter beneath the icon.  They were brought in by a co-worker who had not been in the office on Monday, and therefore had not yet read the e-mail. Truly a miracle.

I once wrote a story called “Nonperishables,” about a woman who decides to enter her pound cake at the state fair, but ends up giving it to a friend instead. “What’s the use of pouring your love into a pound cake,” she asks, “and then having three bites taken out of it just for purposes of criticism? You should spread them around! You should give them to the poor, the bereaved, the sick, and the lonesome. You know what? That’s what’s nonperishable! Not the cake, but the thought and the love that make you give it.”

I am looking at a counter filled with love right this minute. I have zucchini bread, and low-carb peanut butter cookies, and leftovers from a delicious Thai lunch. Not to mention bouquets of flowers, which feed the soul and are themselves perishable. All of this to help me heal from a small surgery. It’s working like a charm, too.

I wonder if we shouldn’t have special healers with the power to write prescriptions for brownies, fruit pies, breads, and cookies, casseroles and soups and salads. I think there could be a great deal of value in that.  And no risk of dangerous side effects, even in the event of an overdose.

On the day that St. Von Nicholas set up residence in our office, a gentleman, B., came to my doorway and explained that while he liked brownies just like everyone else, he was really a pound cake man. So later that week I took a pound cake, sliced, individually wrapped, and packed in a basket. I set the basket beneath the icon at 8:30, and at 9:30 B. brought the empty basket to my office.

“We need more,” he said.

I shook my head. “I hope you got more than one piece,” I told him, since he really was the only reason I had made pound cake in the first place.

His big blue eyes got rounder—and yet they conveyed a terrible sadness. Then he held up four fingers.  

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I found a book some years back that almost appears to have been homemade. It’s called Handbook of the Bach Flower Remedies, by Philip M. Chancellor.  “Illustrated!” the yellow cover promises—without the exclamation point, but the word is printed very emphatically in black lowercase letters.

The idea that flowers might cure an illness is appealing to me.  What a soft, nontoxic sort of cure that must be—gentle, fragrant, like a blessing.

Chancellor’s book describes the work of Dr. Edward Bach, who created tiny brown bottles of flower and plant extracts that are dispensed with an eyedropper, which makes it all seem more medicinal to me. Bach developed a spectrum of cures in the 1930s: Honeysuckle for someone who feels stuck in a happy past and unable to enjoy the present; Crab Apple for general cleansing; Heather for persons who are unhappy if they have to be alone for any length of time. The Flower Remedies are quite specific. The most important remedy of all is the Rescue Remedy:

The Rescue Remedy is a composite Remedy which Dr. Bach formulated for use in emergencies.  It is not … a Remedy in itself, properly speaking; it is composed of five Remedies.  Nevertheless, because of the lifesaving possibilities inherent in the Rescue Remedy, it is almost an obligation for every practitioner to have some made up and ready for instant use.  Dr. Bach himself, and many of his adherents, both lay and professional, made it a practice to carry a small bottle of the Rescue Remedy with them at all times.  The Rescue Remedy could well save a life during an emergency when seconds count, and before qualified medical help arrives.

Formula

The five Remedies which compose the Rescue Remedy are:

Star of Bethlehem, for shock.

Rock Rose, for terror and panic.

Impatiens, for mental stress and tension.

Cherry Plum, for desperation.

Clematis, for the bemused, faraway, out-of-the-body feeling which often precedes fainting or loss of consciousness.

Use it for a great sorrow, for some sudden bad news.  Use it after any accident, whether severe or inconsequential…

We have been trying our own Flower Remedies this summer, all aimed at the inconsequential, day-to-day accidents like an inability to sleep. We planted lemon verbena, chamomile, and sage; we already had mint and lavender, basil, oregano, and a really nice rosemary bush. The fragrances alone are probably curative. Here are some of the remedies we’ve been trying:

Chamomile-mint tea. This has been a very nice tea, and it truly does seem to help us sleep. I use about a dozen chamomile flowers and six or eight mint leaves and steep them for about five minutes. Plain old mint tea is good, too, and is supposed to be good for the digestion.

Lemon verbena-mint tea. Not as delicious as chamomile, but a pleasant tea that is also relaxing but apparently should not be taken for more than 10 days in a row. That makes me nervous. There’s a recipe on The Splendid Table Web site for lemon verbena sorbet, and I intend to try that as soon as we run out of yesterday’s generous batch of (see next item).

Basil-buttermilk sorbet. I know. Basil belongs in pesto and buttermilk belongs in biscuits. But I got the recipe through the grapevine at work, and it is – exactly as promised – outstanding. The recipe is simple—the only ingredients not in the name are limes, sugar, and water—and the result is amazing. Choirs of angels sing every time I take the lid off the tub I packed it in. It is kind of like a margarita, and it’s the perfect cure for 108-degree days. I’m going to try a batch using some of our mint, and see if it tastes like a mojito.

Tonight we’ll be eating flank steak with homegrown sage. I’m not sure if sage has curative properties, but our plant is doing well with too much sun and not enough rain, and we expect good things from it.

It’s nice to eat (and drink) flowers and leaves from the garden, with or without medicinal value. This year, even the hydrangeas have looked edible, especially the classic snowball bushes, which have been particularly fine. They seem to thrive here even in extreme heat. There’s one house that I pass on my way to work that is surrounded by the most gorgeous snowball bushes I’ve ever seen—they are pure white, fresh, and beautiful. I told my mom that they looked so good, I was tempted to stop the car, pick a single blossom, and eat it like a snow cone. I imagine that it would be as delicious and cool as coconut cream. And I’m sure it would cure whatever ails me.

Annabelle hydrangea. Photograph by Don Sessions, http://www.donsessions.blogspot.com/

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The Japanese iris are about to open. I hope. Behind and on the right in the raised bed are onions and potatoes, and in the center background are the white peonies, which can no longer hold their heads up, and behind them tall, wispy asparagus plants. We’re letting them grow for another year before beginning to harvest the young shoots.   

I had to hold the stem of this peony while I took the picture.

Beyond the rosemary and cilantro, Ernesto checks his baby lettuces.

With the asparagus growing tall and spindly and the peonies tipping over from their own weight, this quote from The Invisible Garden, by Dorothy Sucher, seemed perfect for today:

Gardens give their owners so much joy and discontent that sometimes they seem to be a metaphor for life. There is more to them than meets the eye; all sorts of memories and emotions cling to them. … [T]he delicate, finely-cut ferns of asparagus bring to mind the memory of a beloved grandfather; the sumptuous globe of a peony, bending under its own weight, serves as a reminder of a child’s wonder at what seemed to be drops of blood on the white petals. I think of this complex of conscious and unconscious associations as an “invisible garden” that each of us, gardeners and garden visitors alike, carries around. These associations remain dormant until the plants we happen to be looking at reawaken them. Then old, half-forgotten feelings wash over us, perhaps joy and pleaure, perhpas loss and pain. We can never know in advance how walking through a garden wlll make us feel. Sometimes the fresh perceptions of childhood come back to us for a few glorious moments. Sometimes, seemingly for no reason at all, we become sad. Always it is the invisible garden that gives the visible garden its deepest meaning.

One of my garden ornaments, Stone Puppy, was a high school graduation present. Originally I used him as a doorstop in my bedroom. One day Mama figured out that if she asked our rat terrier, Lucy, where Stone Puppy was, Lucy would flip out–she would run to the bedroom and begin to sort of dig frantically at his stony front feet. We could ratchet up the frenzy by picking up Stone Puppy and pretending to caress him, as if he were a real puppy. Lucy didn’t care for that one bit.

Seeing Stone Puppy in the garden makes me happy.

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Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Arboretum

The North Carolina Arboretum has a quilt garden, which changes seasonally. I would like to try something similar on a small scale. We recently planted some strawberry begonia and forget-me-nots that could possibly work in a flower quilt. We put them on the bank between the house and the driveway–a bank that’s difficult to mow and needs a nice groundcover instead. I tried to get some creeping phlox started on it last spring, but it failed to take. And I watered it so faithfully until I forgot!  I think there’s a tiny puff of phlox still holding on to the bank, but it couldn’t muster up enough energy to bloom so I’m not certain.

I don’t know how my flower quilt project will go. I’ve never been good at gardening or sewing, although I did sort of make a blanket once. I’d been craving an expensive raspberry-colored silk coverlet from the Garnet Hill catalog. Then, while watching PBS one Saturday morning, I saw a crafty woman make a throw out of polar fleece cut with pinking shears. I ran to Joanne’s Fabrics which, in a clear demonstration of the rightness of this project, happened to have polar fleece on sale for $3.99/yard. I bought three yards of deep raspberry-red fleece and a pair of pinking shears. Fifteen minutes later (I’m awkward with fabric and shears) I folded my new throw and placed it at the foot of the bed, where it glowed against the white coverlet on my down comforter. I celebrated my wonderfully successful project by buying a bunch of deep pink flowers (Gerbera daisies and carnations) mixed with white stock, and placed them in a silver base on the bedside table.

It still makes me happy to think of it.

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The daffodils and forsythia are blooming, and trees are frothing with pink or white blossoms so that driving down certain streets is like passing through a birthday cake. I love spring. I like to wander through the yard and check on the progress of the flowers and plants that come back every year. Right now we have peonies emerging, a dozen stalks of asparagus, new growth on the rosebush, and mint freshening and tumbling out of a large pot. The white buds on our apple tree look like popcorn that is nearly ready to burst open.

In December, when we were a long way from bloom-time and I was supposed to be buying presents for other people, I found a pretty little book at an antique store: Favorite Plants: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love. Edited by Jamaica Kincaid, the book contains pieces written by a variety of writers and poets. There’s a D. H. Lawrence poem about cyclamens, an essay praising the castor bean by Michael Pollan, and a truly fantastic piece called “A Day on the Edge of the World” by botanist F. Kingdon Ward, who writes about his hunt for new types of tiny alpine flowers.

I’ve always had a special fondness for books about gardens. Burnett’s The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books when I was young—and I still love it, with its Tasha Tudor illustrations. A few years ago I came across The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys. It is a nearly perfect novel set in Great Britain during World War II. It features a wonderful magnolia tree that stands as a dark memorial to love and life lost, whereas the lost garden of the title is restored. And I have said so before, but will say again, that the book should have ended on page 180, with the magnolia tree:

Every spring it loses its fragrance to the earth in one reckless gesture, like a young boy standing at the railing of a ship and saying to his friend—Let us take our coats off and throw them in the sea.

But I wasn’t invited to help edit The Lost Garden, so let’s go back to Favorite Plants. One of the contributors is Duane Michals, a photographer. I looked up his work; he produced a print of a young man coughing (or possibly sneezing) flowers into the air. His essay, “The Vanishing Act,” speaks of his special fondness for resurrection lilies. But what I love most is his general description of his garden:

William Blake would like my garden. It is a green mossy cabinet of floral curiosities where every ordinary bloom has a soul and is more bizarre than any black hole full of falling stars. …

In this green menagerie there are colors only bees can see, too slight for human sight. Some tones, like blitz blau and quark bone, can only be observed by ladybugs in the dark.  

 And in the end, Michals goes all-in:

 My garden is the universe. I am the universe. I am my garden. All things are the same.

And so it is.

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