It’s funny and wonderful how a fragile flower can summon up a flesh and blood person, just as palpably as if they, like the bloom, were capable of materializing in vivid color out of an unremarkable brown seed.
I look at the cheery pinks, purples, whites and yellows of portulaca and my maternal grandmother is there with me—she grew them and they were the first flower she showed me how to grow for myself; in their endurance and generosity, they speak of her whenever I see them. They are as much that grandmother, personified, as roses recall the quiet strength and deep emotions of my paternal grandmother, with her trays of fragrant petals drying in the pantry, precious perfume preserved and stored like memory.
Yesterday I was at Butchart Gardens, one of the glories not just of Vancouver Island nor just of Canada but of public gardens around the world (and a mere few minutes’ drive from my house), to see the late summer dahlias, which grow in great banked walls of gold, crimson, sunset pink, snowy white, and the purple of wine in the glass the guest leaves (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson). As I stood there before this floral fortress, I thought of my maternal grandfather, who I knew had loved just these flowers, just these colors. This was one of the commonalities I shared with this man whom I had barely known, who died when I was not yet four years old. I have a snapshot of him from his last years, Grandpa in an old t-shirt with his big metal watering can, green paint flaking off around the ghostly imprint of a flower on its side, directing a shower of water over a bed of incandescent dahlias, zinnias and mums, which seemed to be literally doing their best to show their appreciation, even as he smiled down at them in awe. I often look at this Polaroid and think that if there is a place for the spirit to go after the dissolution of the body and the end of the mortal myth of Time, such a place—a patch of glorious flowers, and himself to care for them in perpetuity—is where I would hope my grandfather now is.
I would also hope he had access to good books, because his love of these, and of the rather more arcane byways of history, is another passion we share. From his library, which he somehow carted around despite the peripatetic poverty of the Great Depression, I have an old volume of the complete poetic works of Thomas Moore, another of Shakespeare’s comedies, and a gilt-edged compendium of the letters of celebrated seventeenth century courtesan Ninon de L’Enclos. Finding these, to me, was like finding a reason for me, for my own fascination with history, poetry, the France of Louis XIV, the lovely feel of a well-bound book. I also admired the fact that my grandfather’s love for learning was carried and sustained through a life of continual struggle, caused in part by circumstances beyond his control, but also a by-product of his dreamer’s approach to life’s harsher realities.
Aside from these tangible evidences of who my late grandfather was, I had heard many stories—about his birth in the Oklahoma Territory and hardscrabble childhood as youngest son of a disagreeable German immigrant father, who allegedly struck over the head with his cane the priest who was reading him the last rites, and of a gentle mother, an educated woman who carried baskets to the poor and died of pneumonia after assisting another woman with a difficult birth in a snowstorm, a woman whose picture he carried in his wallet till it was, at the end, a frayed square bearing a smudge barely recognizable as a person. Of running away and starting an adventure that had taken my grandfather to every state in the union up to that time, working as a waiter in a fancy New York restaurant, cadging rides on railway cars, sleeping under the stars.
As a biographer, these are part of the picture of a person I work hard to paint, and sometimes I have little more than these to go on—the books and flowers, triumphs and failures, the anecdotal trail a person leaves behind as they pass across the unstable sands of others’ memories and of their own. But there is also that other part of the work of biography, the securing of documents and proofs, the body of evidence needed to make a case, as thoroughly as a defense lawyer hoping to save his client from prison or the noose. As a biographer, I know better than to rely entirely on the books and the flowers attaching to a person’s memory, but in our own families we seldom ask for more evidence—hence the lesson I was taught last week when, after years of never bothering, of being satisfied with the books and flowers, the romance of a life live outside the lines, I decided to check out my grandfather’s story, using census and voting records and the other documents that pin a life down to a place or political party.
I had grown up being fascinated with the ancestry of my two grandmothers—my paternal grandmother’s descent from European gentry, her cousinship with Goethe and Kant, my maternal grandmother’s romantic southern ancestry, her descent from Mayflower pilgrims. I had always accepted that my maternal grandfather came of ordinary folks, farming Germans (his father was an immigrant from Baden-Württemberg, we were told), and while I often wondered about his educated and gentle mother, I had never really tried to properly frame her or her husband’s stories with documentation proving their existence. So my surprise can be imagined when I found that not only was my great-grandfather not from Germany, but from Ohio, or his wife deceased in a snowstorm in Oklahoma, cut down in her prime, when in fact she outlived her first husband and married again, and died elderly in a town north of Columbus. Nor was my grandfather born anywhere near Oklahoma—his life, like that of his father and mother, also started out in the farmlands of Ohio. But most surprising, and disturbing, was my discovery that he had not only been married twice before he wed my grandmother (who was almost young enough to be his daughter), but by his first wife had had a son, born in 1914.
Thinking of the books and the flowers, of his love for his mother, about which we were told so often, I grasped at the presumption, even the hope, that another story we were told was true—that my grandfather had been briefly married while young and had lost a child or children in an epidemic, and also his wife, and as the survivor had wandered the world searching for meaning, as men and women stunned by loss have done since time immemorial. I was not expecting to find what appeared in the records next. Not only had my grandfather’s son survived, he had died as late as 1966, still living in Ohio. I could not find a divorce decree, and my mother was amazed to hear she had had a brother who was a year younger than her own mother. And, too, upset to hear it, because we had all had in that back room not of memory but of intuition which we all hesitate to enter too often, a fear that my grandfather had probably walked out on this woman and his son, coupled with the fear that he had possibly done so with his second wife, too. This is where the documentation, that unsteady prop of the historian, fails to confirm one way or the other.
As a biographer, I should have known better than to accept the anecdotes for the truth of the man. Why should he be held to a different standard from that applied to any of the personages I write about? I confess that the books and flowers made me hope for more, expect something different. Yet were his passions for books and flowers and the memory of his mother any less true than those painful missteps documented in the cursive hand of anonymous census takers? Were flowers and Thomas Moore and the Epicurean philosophy of Ninon his way of dealing with his past life by attempting to order his present one with the structure and the mystic truth of a poem, and with flowers, that other miracle of the human condition? I do not know. I do know that now, when I examine the lives of others, I will not just bury myself in forests of paperwork, sifting yellowed paper for the essence of the living, but will stop, as they say, to smell the roses. And to look at the dahlias, the way my grandfather looked at his, and quoting Thomas Moore:
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.