Between the Thorns
A bramble patch with scruffy rose bushes blooms in the shadow of an overzealous lilac bush. Acting as an urban wind chime, the rusted gate is perch to sparrows and morning doves. Seeming intentional, scattered debris designing this fallow land with a narrative, discarded empty Mad Dog Twenty Twenty Bottles and Hot Chip cellophane wrappers, telling stories of the people who live on the margins.
Once, in another time, this now vacant yard was a cherished, cultivated rose garden. When Detroit was dying, one of her cat lives, in the seventies, slayed by poverty, graft, greed and reputation, Mrs. Stevens planted a garden in barren land she purchased, dirt cheap. She purchased vacant lot next to home. A empty parcel once the plot for a sprawling, Victorian home.
Lingering, before it burned, the house took it’s memories leaving only a parched, patch of earth between two other turn of the century homes in Midtown Detroit. The house had become blight, the previous inhabitants blight. Now the overgrown field enshrined dashed hopes, lost dreams and unanswered prayer.
Mrs. Stevens took to the land like her sharecropper people. Earth a currency once denied was freedoms key to bondage.
Old southerners had been witnessed eating soil, scooping up handfuls, ingesting that which they had tilled and bleed for. Some claim it held nutrients. Perhaps the parched red clay sustained them, connecting them to the hearts of their kin. Partaking the earth gave claim to what had been denied.
Mrs. Stevens rose garden was on a parcel of land between two faded “painted ladies”, turn of the century homes. Once picture perfect, with Gingerbread lattices, wrap around porches, the houses had gleaming mahogany staircases and a promise of domestic bliss. Grand homes, with beveled windows that framed, in rainbow hues, the dwellers in their daily rituals of life. In it’s travels from east to west the sun dappled, creating a prismatic fairyland for children cavorting through, the starched petticoats whooshing, as they frolicked the in game.
Back in time, in the 1890’s, the streetcars clang announced father’s return from work, delivering him home. Strutting from Woodward his haven, he would tip his hat to the help as they scurried past to catch the same streetcar, home to their world, a world of pungent odors and screeching urchins. Awaiting its master, the home a flurry, readying with fresh squeezed lemonade, fluffing the pillows on the wicker chairs, fluffing the coif of the compliant wife.
By the seventies the world had turned and the landscape altered. Taped up muffler’s resonated from the corner where the Purple Heart Resale catered to the scarce budget’s of the locals. Florescent signs announcing “Food Stamps Accepted” papering windows of the corner store. Discarded cans and cracked sidewalks, the decay advertising poverty’s hold over the dwellers of this now threadbare neighborhood. Peeling paint confetti littered the cracked cement where sparrows rooted in the trodden earth thinking it sustenance.
The times, the times but I will let Gram and MRS Eulalie Stevens, the two elderly ladies who lived on either side of the lot tell of them.
When one of my aunts was asked, “Was grandma, your mother a gardener? “She snorted with laughter and said, “No she was a gatherer.” She assembled, called to her, collected. She took what the earth had spawned and tended to it. She took cuttings from geranium’s and put them in Mason jars them in her window sill till stubbornly until the cuttings gave way to blooms. She gathered. She gathered to her many rootless grandchildren who lived with her while attending the university up the Woodward.
Like Gram, I do not grow but harvest, gather from the fallow, a seed, like a sapling seeking water I find a source, then it sprouts and gives me the story. She was my geranium giving me a forever bloom, another bud, a story.
In the eighties a local newspaper, sensing reader fatigue with the salacious, redundant headlines, of violence, victimhood, created a column showcasing citizens who were making positive contributions to the city. (Perhaps we should create a hall of fame for these folks who held a candle to the darkness.)The paper asked folks to submit the names and the stories of people who were making positive contributions to their neighborhood community. In the apocalyptic times of flight, fight, crack, the city still wearing the scars of the riot of 67 the newspapers intention was to find a glimmer of light in a Dark Age of Detroit.
The city a scorned love, scathed by the insurrection, the riots reaction to decades of disenfranchisements, graft and inequities. The riot had ethnically cleansing the city, creating an exodus as from a sinking ship but only for those whose skin allowed them to leave.
My family left as immigrants, spurned by the place we loved, we were like the Bosnians caught in a political landscape we could not alter. Not caught in crossfire, but pawns in a design that profiteers had machinated. The fray of the fire’s, the edgy energy of suspicion, and the fault lines on our hearts, we like so many caught in a crossfire of history departed a war zone leaving our neighbors, most of whom were black. But that is another story.
Grandma did not leave. She had left before, left too many times, once the farm in Willis, again her the house of her father in-law that teaming with relatives. Ultimately she left the role of wife, when her beloved husband succumbed to Lou Gehrig disease. Left, widowed with nine children, in the sprawling house that she inherited when her Uncle Lar passed away. Choosing the house over money she rooted in like a willow, deep.
Race, riots or robberies did not thwart her. This was her home.
Immune to histories spur, she remained ensconced in the faded glory of home. The vibrant patch of the flower garden seemed a shrine to fortitude and love, where Mrs. Eulalie and Mrs. Irene, the gardener and the gather living side by side, would sit in the splendor.
At the papers solicitations seeking citizens who made a difference I wrote and made a suggestion that they feature these two ladies. There had been articles about the efforts of the entrepreneurs or folks creating neighborhood watch associations and such.
These woman, who ignored the course of history and forged a life and a friendship seemed a rarity in the strife of the sixties and the narrative of Detroit. I wrote the paper in scratchy cursive. It went something like this:
Dear Free Press,
Four blocks north of the Boulevard just east of Woodward is a garden. It is the garden of Mrs. Eulalie Stevens. When the house next to hers got torn down, she bought the land and cultivated a garden. Mostly roses, resplendent, reaching for the sun, bloom there. The air in the neighborhood is perfumed with the steamy scent of the flora. The garden is an oasis of beauty, in a community riddled with crack houses and grime. The garden in its loveliness hints at hope to all who gaze on it.
It is safely enshrined behind cyclone fencing.
Mrs. Stevens designed her garden so she can step from her side door into the splendor. Directly across from her at Gram’s door she put a gate, so that Gram also has access.
The garden is enchanting, more so when the two elders have a sit. Gram dressed in a faded floral housedress, Mrs. Stevens all pert and pressed sit chatting in the shade. People turn and often gape, not at the beauty but at this rare vision of two woman of different colors, one white, one black in this ghettoized community struck by the rarity of roses and the elder woman who live their commonality, telling stories, just having a sit. Mrs. Stevens garden is a place of hope.
A grandmothers chastisements never cease to sting. I have two hurts. Once I had been trash talking about “some ole grandma,” when the door flew open and she suddenly, sprightly stepped into the glaring sun and slapped me across my fleshy, freckled cheek.
The second time was in the phone call she made to me after the paper rang, inquiring if they could interview her and write a story about her, Mrs. Stevens and the garden. Scolding me she said, “ I do not want my business strewn about.”
Slap slap, do not meddle. Good fences make good neighbors I suppose. It was crack time in the “D”. She was a regular on the route. Her home had been burglarized repeatedly. So often that I wonder what they took from her meager life. She lived a sustainable life, wanting little, giving what little she had to others. Her spare rooms, never vacant became a sort of family dormitory to her blue collar grand kids seeking the dream of the lofty towers of education, lived with her foreshadowing the urban hipsters, walking Woodward, tracing the tacks of the long street cars to the university.
All seek blame. The IChing , again and again speaks of “no blame” When her TV went, missing, when her social security check went missing, when my class ring was taken, to malinger in some frayed pawn shop she blamed no one. She did never spoke ill of her neighbors, all of whom were black. Never did she taint the world with a “They …” A euphemism for those whose culture or color do not mirror the sameness of ours.
Once though weary of yet another robbery she cast about in her pure heart for some way to understand, to assign cause. She did not speak ill of the perpetrators or their culture. She blamed the President of The United States of America. It was Nixon’s fault and his politics, which had eliminated government programs that forced people, had forced people to extreme and anarchistic reactions.
Now decades later my daughter, bought a house about a mile from where gram had lived. A tough city for tough people, she was feeling the reverberations of the economy, the times. I worried on her, her safety and vulnerability. Prayer was not working; arming her with mace seemed an action in futility. I was provoked, deeply. My momma heart causing me great anxiety. My powerless, my cross.
I wanted to spirit her away, just like grandmas children, who seeming a reality show did interventions, begging her to leave the city, “ Mom, I will buy you a condo.”
A non-gardening girl delivered from the family farm to Detroit. She rooted in deeper, at home in the city soil.
My daughter anchoring in to her space, my mom anxieties weighing on me, I took a lesson from Mrs. Eulalie Stevens. I bought a rose bush and placed it right on the corner. It blooms next to the cracked pavement embellished by the weedy cornflowers. As folks walk past her corner lot, from the projects to the beer store with the cheapest forty ouncer’s. They stop and exclaim after the red blooms. They seem held by the beauty. This hedge of protection a reminder of how we can thwart dark with light. The rose blooms, reminiscent of the vacant lot between the two woman who refused to let their skin color or history’s demands chart the course of their hearts.