When our dogwood tree had a limb pulling away from its slim, moss-mottled trunk, my husband, Michael, shored it up with a supersized rubber band and an ochre poultice that made it look as if a jar of mustard had shattered up its scaly arm. Watching Michael work on the rosy-petaled tree reminded me of the day Father planted dogwoods in the back and front yards of the old colonial that was on Collins Street years ago. He had acquired the trees from two elderly spinsters, with whom he worked at Falk Brothers, Clothiers, downtown—a part-time job he kept to supplement his teaching income. The sisters were looking for another home for their young dogwoods, and were happy to give them to anyone willing to take them away. So my handyman Father, always one to jump on a deal, went over to the sisters’ place with his long handled round-point shovel and dug up the trees.
Before the dogwoods, the front and back yards were bare except for a bright pink azalea and a mauve mountain laurel that Father had also dug up from elsewhere. The young trees with their dainty petals made the yards look regal, and gave me a sense of being firmly planted in our quarter-acre city lot homestead. Each spring after Easter mass some adult would take photos of my sisters and brothers and me fitted in our Sunday best—girls in white dresses, gloves and straw bonnets, and boys in beige long shorts, jackets and ties— under the creamy blossoms of the dogwood out back. We could always count on finding the golden egg nearby.
I’ve since learned that dogwood roots are shallow, which would seem to make it less stable, more vulnerable to strong winds that blow in. And I wonder, now, if I should try to find meaning in this. If it is somehow a represents the state of my relationship with Michael, which sometimes feels tenuous, fragile, as if we had neglected to lay down thick roots, or to provide the proper nutrients to strengthen them.
Michael and I didn’t plant the dogwood in our front yard. The front beds had already been landscaped when we moved in our builder’s spec house. Plantings were low to the ground and generously spaced, just as a prudent landscaper would advise. I could see the prickly English holly behind the weeping Japanese cherry. The rose of Sharon—my tree of breath—with its flat, luscious blossoms, stood upright until it hit the second story. The fire bush was not on fire. The young hydrangea teased us with the promise of blue mopheads. Then, my husband, gung ho to have a lush, mature arrangement of flora wrapping the front of our house added to the builder’s plantings, and now the beds are as crowded and unruly as Macy’s at Christmastime. Greenery is cannibalizing itself, a mass of roots zapping nutrients—the life—out of the mulch-covered soil. My rose of Sharon, two stories high, lunges toward Providence. My hydrangea delivered dead stalks clawing at Heaven. There are species in the way back with which I am no longer familiar. Father warned against this.
Michael likes the overgrown beds. I like to see out my front windows. Michael doesn’t like to snip the bramble. I don’t like to watch plants suffocate or consume one another. So every once in a while, when Michael is not looking, I grab the hedge trimmers and cut into the crowd. This is a game we (or at least I) have been playing for a dozen years. Sometimes he notices and gets sore at me, sometimes he doesn’t. Most of the time he simply ignores the situation, and I grow more aggravated with the overgrown beds and his failure to properly care for them—according to my standards, that is. Even our own king-size bed is cluttered, extra pillows and blankets in all sizes. This game is played out in many arenas: the yard, the house, the budget, the kids. I state a concern, and Michael, if he is not also concerned, ignores it. But nowhere is it played with more vigor than in the front beds, where the level of neglect is beyond my understanding. I wonder if most marriages are like this—Venus and Mars—and god forbid if the two planets should ever collide. I make mental notes of our little conflicts, often I forget them, sometimes I can no longer store them in my mind, so I write.
My former sharp-witted, perspicacious, writing advisor told me to search for meanings and opportunities that may not have been apparent to me in my first drafts— thing that might accentuate or heighten the awareness of a certain feeling. Dig deeper, he said, but don’t telegraph the meaning with hyperbole (hyperbole—ha, me?), or push hard to impart significance. Rather, the deeper meaning must speak for itself, and I must allow it to present itself to me “to record with a colder eye.” He is right. Why I don't do this in my first drafts, when my tendency is to search for truth, meaning, in everything, I don't know. Maybe I'm afraid of what I'll find.
I do know this: truth makes for better writing.
There was a time when my watching eye was very cold. Very, very cold, and I could have recorded most anything I observed with the harshness of an ice storm. But as I’ve aged, become a mother, my view of the world has widened and warmed—it is not as sinister as I once perceived it, and I am less likely to see it through cold eyes. I think about the shallow roots of our dogwood, and realize that shallowness isn’t necessarily an indicator of weakness. Yes, a shallow-rooted tree may easily topple in a hurricane, but its roots won’t clog drainage fields, choke its neighbor, or crumble a home’s foundation like some bigger, more showy trees might. Shallow roots, as in the case of the pretty dogwood that’s fixed in our front bed, make for beautiful, blushing petals that fold out to reveal the sparkling fruit within.
Still, shallow roots or not, our shrubbery is now wildly out of control and beyond snipping—it would take a chain saw to lob off the overgrowth—and neither one of us is qualified to remedy or mitigate the disorder. What we need is a professional. I once called in a gardener friend to mediate our front beds dispute. She agreed with me that we needed to cut the shrubbery way back, and suggested removing some of the plants and bushes. Ah, an answer! Better for the house, she said. We were giving all sorts of pests an invitation to enter. All they needed do is march across the bridge of branches and leaves and flowers abutting the wood siding of our home. (This would explain the ant problem.) Yes, so true! I’d said to her. It’s the same advice Father had given me—sometimes I wonder why I hadn’t married someone as handy as Father was. Michael listened to the gardener’s advice but seemed little convinced, and so continued to manage the property on his own terms.
This September will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. We met three years before we were married. But for all our time together, I sometimes feel that there’s little we really know of each other. We are apart each weekday with our separate agendas, and like most families, the evenings and weekends are full with domestic duties and obligations, rushing the kids off to soccer or basketball or wherever it is they need to go. We argue about things like front beds and light bulbs and deck furnishings. Too much, too little, not right! I don’t know this man, I think. What’s become of the man I met all those years ago? He’s changed. Or I’ve changed. The answer is, we have both changed, of course. And some of the youthful idiosyncrasies that I then thought so endearing in him—for instance, his easygoing, unhurried disposition, his pensive if sometimes detached demeanor—now annoy the hell out of me. Especially when things don’t get done when and how they should get done, which, I know, is however I would like them to be done.
If these things are in fact metaphors—shallow roots, disorderly beds—for our relationship, there are other metaphors, too. I suppose it bodes well that Michael repaired the dogwood tree. I suppose that my cutting away at bushes is a symbolic gesture akin to cutting away at Michael, opening him up, attempting to gain access to what might be at the heart of his often detached, pensive self. There’s a lot there, I know. His tolerance for the overgrown beds might be his way of celebrating the beauty, the lushness, of a wild thing—a thing that needs no confinement. But I’m torn about this metaphor, whether it’s accurate or necessary, or whether I am telegraphing meaning.
The dogwood’s fruit, I have learned, symbolizes endurance.
I read a Christian fable claiming that the Romans used the strong and durable dogwood to make crosses on which criminals like Jesus were crucified; and so the rose tint of a dogwood’s four-petal flower—the vague shape of a cross—supposedly reveals the “blush of shame” for how the tree was used, which made me wonder if my literate, Roman Catholic Father had been aware of it. I doubt he’d have given it much credence, or thought to root a dogwood in his back yard as a symbolic gesture, he was too pragmatic, though he did like to recount a good moral story. If anything, he planted the dogwoods because they were cheap—costing him his labor only, which, knowing Father, made the acquisition all the more gratifying. And since we know that the dogwood is a strong and durable tree, he could count on his effort paying off. The bonus was the graceful shapes, the way those trees gently opened to the world.
Yes, the roots of a dogwood may be shallow, but they run at great lengths, anchoring trunk to earth with a heaving, vascular bundle of tubes. The tree grows wildly, wantonly, holds on for years, and even adult foliage teases the eye coquettishly. Nearly fifty years later, the old dogwoods still stand in the front and back yards of the colonial in which I grew up. Each year, they are a bit taller, a bit more regal, the petals that cup the succulent fruit pinker and whiter.
Yet, deeper meaning—if there is a deeper meaning—too often eludes me. I know I could keep digging into the dark, moist soil of those overcrowded beds. I might find ugly, wiggly things, a labyrinth of spider webs, or things that pinch or sting. But for the time being, I shall take our now blossoming dogwood, on the surface, as a good sign. Michael’s no handyman like Father, but the golden goo he applied to the tree has cured to a hard gloss, and the dogwood’s arm is holding tight, as if to say it has no mind to let go. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it will.