Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unruly Rosemary

The cheapest one to buy at Amazon from ProFlowers
     On the hottest, driest summer on record in Indiana, I cowered in my air conditioning and stared out the kitchen window at the herbs withering on my deck. I should have lugged the pots into my cool kitchen, I thought, especially the rosemary. She is a special plant. When I bought the Rosemary over three years ago, I paid fifteen dollars out of our grocery bill- a loaf of bread, several boxes of cereal, some fruit other than apples, that is what she cost us that week. Rosemary was trimmed like a mini-Christmas pine, with long succulent needles, but starting to look dry. She once cost twenty-five dollars, in her prime, all sprayed, waxed, trimmed, and wrapped in cheap, flashy foil. With holiday markdowns posted, I snatched her with glee, ready to wean her from the market fertilizers, repot her, and let her get a little native. She would join my indoor gardens, but because of the card rubber banded to a red bow on her girth, I would pay her an homage that my ivies, creeping jews, philodendrons, and peace lilies wouldn’t get.

      In our Pennsylvania duplex, my houseplants owned the enclosed porch. Here in Indiana, I have no garden room, and barely any windows with enough sunlight to foster sun-kissing herbs, like Rosemary. So she, and the parsley, thyme, oregano, mint and rue, grow in pots and planters around my deck. I pick fresh leaves off many of the herbs as we bring the food to the deck so dinner is freshly flavored. This summer, we haven’t eaten as often on the deck, with the heat and bugs so thick. The scorching turned our yard brown, and left my Rosemary gray with dust. She looked like a scrub, like the arid fauna described on the card Rosemary came with years ago. It retold the legend of the plant’s namesake Mary the Mother of God, fleeing to Egypt with Joseph from Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Like Hagar and Ishmael, or Jonah, the desert heat overtook them. Where Jonah found relief in a vine that sprung up, Hagar was rescued by the Angel of the Lord, and Mary flung her cloak over a scrub under which the holy family found refuge. In the cool of the night, they left, and behind them the bush flowered in white and blue, the colors associated with Mary’s purity and blessedness.

     On this hot summer day, my rosemary looked anything but blessed. Her arms branched out like an abandoned yew bush. One dropsy arm needed whacking. Her needles were brittle and stubby. I thought she was looking almost indistinguishable from her neighbor, English thyme. I might have seized a bottle of water, sprayed the dust away, and grabbed my shears to reshape her into a conical pine, but water droplets in July heat would burn her chloroplasts like ants smoking under a magnifying glass. Pruning should be in the cool seasons, when woody plants lie dormant. This was the wrong time to give her a makeover, though no harm would come in snipping the twisted limbs for roasted garlic and olive oil dipping sauce.

There is another trouble with pruning. I know that plants need some pinching and pruning to thrive: basil must be pinched to bush out, as should rose and berry canes. Whenever I snipped the canes, I imagined a disturbance in the force. I haven’t pruned in over a year because the last time I took the tools to the plants, I pretended I heard inaudible tones, like the screeing of my grandparents tube TV set, when I left it on but no signal was being transmitted, or the dog whistle. When I was eight, my grandfather kept two German Shepherds across the lot, guarding his tool barns. In his desk he kept a brass dog whistle that he blew when the dogs bayed. I could not understand, since the wind and trees carried away most of the sound. He said the barking troubled the residents- he owned the mobile home park in which we all lived. Whenever he took the whistle out of his pencil drawer, I slammed my palms over my ears because it made my spine twitch. My mother said I was imagining things. Like the weeping of the Firebush cut to size.

    My plants are my pets. I remembered how declawing our Katy Kitty wounded her. We planned to let her keep her claws, until she began etching our 200-hundred year old woodwork. She became my enemy then. The front claws had to go, agreed my husband. I think it was his idea of a peace accord. She came from the vet’s office drugged, and we gently laid her on towels, pulling her water and food within her reach. I cooed, actually made the cutsy teenage girl noise, “oooohhh, I feel so sorry for her” when I found her with her paws in her water dish. She didn’t move them for two days. Katy is a rescue cat with the hypochondrical tendencies of a pure Russian Blue. She has a psychological condition requiring rehydration after every flea bite and when she ruled the house, a small bowl of cat food lasted for days. She is not mean, but aloof, more so after she got a housemate, a twenty-pound hairball called Charlie. She stalked Charlie on his first few days, staring him down and hissing at him. My husband renamed the two cats after that. When she resigned herself to Charlie, she was hereafter called “Skinny Bitch,” behind the kids’ backs. My husband likes his craft brews and Skinny Bitch needed a good pairing, so Charlie became Fat Bastard. As a rule, I call them both Cat.

     “Move, Cat,” I’ve yowled as Charlie plodded down the stairs ahead of me. His specialty is doing this when I have an armload of laundry in hand, and with his middle-age beer-belly slowing him, he trips me. But it was not the tripping or his endless shedding that drove me berserk. It was how he violated my houseplants and my herbs. This is why Rosemary was consigned outside most of the year. He chawed on her leathery firs and yakked up green mucus on the carpet.

     “Cat! You’ve violated my Rosemary one too many times,” I’ve bellowed for ten years. The Philodendron, which is poisonous to delicate kitty livers was shuttered in my bedroom. The grape ivy keeps it company. I put the tropical palms, the peace lily, the Arrowvine up and as close to window real estate as possible. Our old home is snuggled within arm’s reach of the house to its left. I thought I could coach some lettuce and herbs out of my few sunny windows, homesteader style. I might be successful one day too, when the cats die, or move. When Charlie lounged lardily across the lettuce starts, I unleashed my worst.

    “Move your fat arse,” I wailed. Indeed the plants were my pets. The cats belonged to my kids. When Katy dropped turds in, then tipped the box planter, she fled the kitchen her rear claws scraping tile. I heard it and roared. I could baby my herbs outdoors in spring, summer and autumn, what would I do in winter, when my herb-babies need warmth? I was willing to risk the thyme, oregano, parsley, mint and rue, but this particular Rosebaby had that pedigree from the Virgin Mary. I had been getting schooled on the Virgin Mother, trying to unlearn my distaste for her. It was like trying to find palatable recipes for asparagus, after being raised only the tinned, reheated mush of childhood. I learned to braise asparagus sprigs in olive oil over an open grill, sprinkle with sea salt and now revered a once-revolted vegetable. Growing up evangelical, the Virgin Mother was as foreign as fresh herbs and delectable vegetables. My rosemary was the first corporeal link to the Mother of God.

    It was in that legend. When I read that card, no one else told me that Mary’s desert respite was akin to Hagar, another obedient handmaiden keening before God for mercy upon her son. No one else indicated that the dusty scrub was the antithesis to Jonah’s vine. A worm ate his, but hers flowered because she held no judgment and bitterness in her heart. The folktale was another of the missing links between the Old Testament, with its stories of sinners in the hands of an angry God, and the New Testament. If the latter seemed effeminate by comparison, with a God-figure whose love is so encompassing that He lays down his life for humankind, it had something to do with Mary, and I’m Mary’s namesake, Maria. The mystery of who I was, or am, or will be, has been all wrapped up in Mariology. The trouble is, my parents, who named me Maria, who told me my name meant something, and to let God reveal what Myrrh, or bitter, meant for my spiritual life, also raised me evangelical and indoctrinated me to avoid venerating her. Then, I betrayed them. I converted to a church that honors Mary by a fancy title, meant to validate her son’s identity as God. The title commonly used is Mother of God, or the Greek Theotokos. Ever-Virgin and All Holy. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to some of those concepts, especially the ever and all ones.

     Maybe it’s a stretch, but the Rosemary staying evergreen meant something to me. I stared out the window, into the heat, thinking about the days ahead, about saving Rosemary from frost and feline. I wondered, though, if I won’t even dare to go outdoors to rescue her from the desert scorch, if I don’t dare to touch her shriveled branches, what would survive?

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