I slowly drive past a sign for Dean’s Nursery along a stretch of Center Ridge Road. A road that cuts through my northern Ohio childhood, connecting me to my father and memories of how he disappeared for hours on a Saturday to "run errands" along this strand of once rural farms now plowed over and planted with nursing homes, family-owned pizzerias and speed zones.
A blaze of color from my youth ignites in front of me. Antique coral, pink lemonade, terracotta rossa – the spectrum of hues in geraniums my father planted barehanded between juniper bushes fronting the façade of both our former family homes. Each year, the color wavered but his pride and commitment to portray our homes as tranquil settings did not.
Short in stature, he drove his Suburban with dirty fingernails gripping the wheel, scouring nurseries, trying to get the flower color right. Not always enough to satisfy my mother, who made her opinions known, but deep down, he held to his own convictions.
Spring inches forward. I find myself in the aisles of nursery plants, conversing with my father across lime amendments and lost time. Seeking the perfect purple, I want to match the three-piece metal bistro set bought to match the grape purple paint covering the corbels of our 1875 Italianate-style home. "Get what you want, Net Marie," I always hear.
My father never feared the elements of outdoors. He was, though, afraid of carrying home flats of flowers that might not harmonize with cheery red brick on the two-story Lincoln Street house and the chimney of the Ridgeland Drive ranch home. My mother would let him know if he failed. He would shake his head, maybe try again, maybe not.
Like him, I wondered why it was so hard to coordinate with pre-planned shades? Because nature abhorred a strict adherence to a dress code? Or because I too had an exacting eye, like my mother?
Early March along Lake Erie, after the snow blower’s appearance was no longer required, my father arranged with the hardware store for someone to till his 60’ x 30’ plot of land. As long as there had been a decent thaw, the land was easy to till, the sandy loam beneath his hallowed lawn turned over easy as eggs on a weekend morning.
Winter continued cruelly some years. By April, he departed from the house on Saturdays, paying less attention to our track meets or CCD classes and more attention to the weather. He slapped a chauffeur’s cap on his hair, thick coal-colored with graying streaks, and zipped up a blue Kmart windbreaker my mother refused to launder and he refused to donate. Sometimes, I tagged along.
There were countless nurseries to stop at and peruse their selections. Pandy’s, Dean’s, Pettiti’s. His forays took him beyond the town limits of our childhood schools to fields and pastures of his own youth where he picked apples and peaches. Hot coffee in a thermos, he imagined life as a farmer. Keeper of the land and not keeper of the peace with five kids at home.
We didn’t talk much on these trips. Occasionally, he told stories about Uncle Mike who died in a hunting accident. Or his mother and her three sisters. How they reminded him of his own four daughters. Or he would bemoan being Italian because he was never quite Italian enough. When he spoke, it was of family. It was always about family.
Our last stop was for twine and stakes, peat moss and manure. Then home to unload and await the verdict from my mother.
Back in Cincinnati, I drive around Cincinnati to Natorp’s, Pipkin’s, Funke’s, Benken Florist, and deliberate over color combinations. My stomach aches for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that would have always been waiting for my father at home. I spread the flower love around, and buy a few gallon pots of bursting yellow dahlias from one vendor, a flat of Easter egg-colored petunias from another business. Basil, oregano, and thyme. At my last stop, I buy creeping Jenny and alyssum for effect.
My city courtyard is oddly void of noise. I ache for the buzz of highway traffic 50 feet behind and below my father’s garden where we dug holes side by side and tossed in mounds of peat moss. My father and I dipped our hands into manure bags like ice cream scoops cuddling the precious element that would yield tomatoes sweeter than sugar. His hands crusty with earth, he shaved off the bottoms of geranium root webs and gently eased each flower from its part-time base. As if lacing up shoes, he deftly tucked the root into its forever home, patted around the altar of the plant and sprinkled a little water that only he could make holy over the petals and prayed the color would be greeted by my mother’s blessing. The neighbor’s envy was its own virtuous sign of success.
I tote bags and pots and the spade onto the brick pavers. Forking through potting soil to break up clumps, these hands don’t feel like mine as they slide into gloves of dirt, yet still they know what to do as a voice snickers, "Plant what you want, Net Marie."
Annette Januzzi Wick is an author and writer who lives in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. Visit annettejwick.com to read more.