I Dream of Dahlias

Dahlia

She was getting on in years, and her cancer had come back, and so she offered me a present. She offered me her dahlias. . . . these dahlias had been a gift from the original owner of my house in 1952.

By Naomi Graychase
Illustrated by Margaret Rizzio

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.

DEE1604DahliaYellow-350My parents were groovy hippies who split up before I made it to kindergarten. So my childhood around Bucksport in the 1970s and ’80s was fairly nontraditional. Mine was a rural upbringing. My parents and I often lived without indoor plumbing or electricity or a telephone. I lived in tents and slept in cars. I lived in a one-room cabin and in a dome in the woods built by another hippie named Stretch. I lived in crummy apartments and in basements and in a camp without insulation on Heart Pond in Orland. That was during a very cold winter, when my mom had to hike down to the lake and use a pickaxe to chip through the ice for water.

Rough as they were, these living arrangements bestowed many gifts: time alone in nature, the ability to entertain myself, a deep appreciation for hot showers and flushing toilets.

Listen to Naomi tell her story live onstage
at Bangor’s Queen City Cellar Tellers storytelling series.

My childhood also cultivated in me a profound longing for home. As long as I can remember, I have ached for a home of my own, a place with four walls and a roof and a foundation, where I can garden and relax into the notion that I’ll be there for years to watch my gardens grow. There was so much impermanence in my upbringing, so much shuttling between makeshift homes. It was impossible to put down literal or figurative roots.

DEE1604DahliaOrange-350Like most kids from our generation, my brother and I were good at playing outdoors, exploring, and making our own fun. One of my clearest memories is playing in the mud flats on the Penobscot River in Bucksport. There was no fancy walkway then, and kids had easy access to the flats and the river.

We found some amazing things down there. We found a note in a bottle, which I still have. It was written by a kid in Bangor who said she was being held captive by a witch. We didn’t do anything to help her, and I still kind of feel bad about it.

We found some sort of tide-tracker device. They used to put them in the water, and if you found one, some scientists somewhere would pay you for it. I think we got five dollars, which was a really big deal for us. We found all sorts of metal objects and trash and driftwood, all the magical detritus that can wash up along the shore of a tidal river in Maine.

But our favorite thing about playing in the mud flats was the poop. Back then, there was a pipe that pumped raw sewage right into the river, and at low tide, it was exposed, so that we could see every turd. They just piled up there. Even better, they sometimes came with bubbles. Someone in Bucksport flushed, their deposit traveled all those pipes to end up in front of us, and a pristine pile of sparkling white bubbles came tumbling out after, the remnants of someone’s bathtub or kitchen sink. For kids our age, few things were as grossly fascinating as that pile of poop and bubbles.

DEE1604DahliaPink-350I moved out of Bucksport as soon as I could, having miraculously not contracted hepatitis or any other diseases from my days playing in raw sewage. I went to college in Massachusetts in 1990 and lived away for the next 20 years. During all those years, I was focused on finding a home of my own, but by age 37, I’d still never lived anywhere for more than two years at a stretch. I still hadn’t found anything that felt like home.

In 2009, my then-partner and I traveled back to Maine. We lived in an RV on my father’s lawn in Orland while we searched for a house. We looked at 27 houses that summer, and the 27th house was the one. When we walked in the door, I was holding my real estate agent’s baby, 8 months old at the time. And as soon as I stepped into the kitchen, holding that beautiful baby, I just knew. A few weeks later, I signed on the dotted line and was handed the keys. I wept in the real estate office, then drove out to my very own house. I put my key in the lock and walked across the threshold. It was a really big moment.

But my fantasy was still incomplete, as one particular piece had not yet come true. I’d always imagined that once I had a home of my own — this place with four walls, a roof, a foundation, and a garden — a neighbor would come by with a plate of baked goods to welcome me to the neighborhood. This felt essential. So I hung up my curtains and I waited. Every day, I waited. Until, one day, the doorbell rang. It was my next-door neighbor, Pat, holding a Saran-wrapped plate of baked goods.

DEE1604DahliaRed-350Pat is about 4½ feet tall and roughly the same age as my grandparents. We became fast friends. She came to all my parties, and we sometimes sat on her back deck for hours, talking about gardens and cats. As time went on, Pat would tell me the same things over and over; we’d have the same conversation every time we visited. It was, in a way, kind of reassuring.

And then one day, Pat offered me a gift. She was getting on in years, and her cancer had come back, and so she offered me a present. She offered me her dahlias.

Now, I am what is called a “slow gardener.” This is to say that I enjoy sitting and looking at my garden more than I enjoy bending over and digging and building and pushing and shoving things around. I really just want to plant hardy perennials and then spend the rest of my days watching them grow. That’s my kind of gardening. But if you know anything about dahlias, you know that they are the opposite of slow gardening. To grow dahlias — at least in Maine — you have to go out in the spring and dig around in the dirt, not too soon and not too late. You have to put the bulbs in the ground and then wait. They grow all summer and then (at least, in my case, since I’m always a bit behind getting them in) they bloom late, sometime in September. And then, after they’ve finished blooming, you have to dig them back up, not too soon and not too late. You have to cut off all the stems and preserve the bulbs. And what’s more is that they multiply, so that every year you have your dahlias, there is more work than the year before.

I would have said no to the dahlias, except Pat explained that these dahlias had been a gift from the original owner of my house in 1952, the same year my parents were born. Pat and her husband had built my house that year, on the lot next to theirs, then sold it to another family. The woman in that family, also a gardener, handed the dahlias to Pat. Pat said yes to the dahlias, and every year for 60 years, she faithfully dug up her beds and put them in. Every year for 60 years, she waited for them to grow, then watched them bloom. She took them out — not too soon and not too late — and she put them in a wheelbarrow (multiple wheelbarrows by the end), then wheeled them into her basement to protect them, to preserve them through winter until spring.

DEE1604DahliaSmall-350So I said yes to the dahlias. And every year for the last four years, I have been the one who goes out in the spring and gets down on my hands and knees and digs in the dirt. I plant all those dahlias, and then I cross my fingers and hope that I am not the one who kills them after 61, 62, 63 years. But so far, every year, they’ve come up and bloomed brightly.

This spring, not too soon and not too late, I’ll bring out the dahlias, one wheelbarrow at a time. I’ll dig up some beds and plant them once more. Pat won’t be here to see it, though. She sold her house around the time that our dahlias were blooming, and moved into assisted living in another state, closer to family. When my new neighbors arrived, I walked over to welcome them, as Pat had done for me.

When I think about the Bucksport of my childhood, I think about poop and bubbles. But when I think of what Bucksport means to me now, I think about dahlias. For me, dahlias represent the necessary work of everything worth doing: home-cooked meals, yoga, friendship, marriage, art, community. More than anything else, those dahlias represent home.

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Naomi Graychase

Naomi Graychase lives, writes, and gardens in the midcoast town of Bucksport.