Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lee Ogburn Roses and Helen DelMonte’s Oak

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
Julius Caesar, Shakespeare

“Oft,” perhaps, but not always. More than 40 years ago, our neighbor Lee Ogburn planted a hedgerow of roses at the edge of one of his fields to act as a windbreak and as a habitat for wildlife. The climbing canes provide thick cover for rabbits, field mice, foxes and other small animals and the bright red hips help songbirds through the winter. But you know what happens when birds eat the seeds of almost any plant, don’t you? If not completely digested, those seeds get scattered far and wide. That’s a nuisance when the plant is poison ivy, but when it’s roses? Look at these. They’ve taken over the woods at the edge of our yard, climbing up into the trees thirty or forty feet. Beautiful to look at and heavenly to smell. Lee Ogburn died a good thirty years ago, but every spring we bless his name.

We love having plants and trees that remind us of friends and neighbors now gone: redbuds from a friend’s yard, a magnolia from my mother, mimosas and camellias from the cousin who built our house, the list goes on and on. One of my favorites is this water oak that we brought back from Harkers Island as a sapling 22 years ago.

I planted it here in 1988 for Helen DelMonte, the fiction editor at McCall’s, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I made her promise that she would come down when it was taller and told her we would drink wine together in its shade. The tree grew vigorously, but for some reason, the branches refused to spread. They curled and twisted almost like the cancer that kept coming back and twisting through Helen's body. In my letters, I lied to her about the tangled branches and sent her a leaf to prove that it was thriving. She died four years later, that leaf still clipped to her refrigerator door. Almost immediately, the branches began to spread out, the trunk thickened, the top stretched for the sky. From the first warm days of spring till the first chill of autumn, we often take our lunch out to the table beneath Helen’s tree. And every time we open a bottle of wine there, we toast her memory and all the good things she was.

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