A great-aunt’s legacy lives on through a packet of delphinium seeds.
By Julia Shipley
Jun 07 2016
The author and her husband, Howie, on their wedding day.Photo Credit : Julia Shipley
The first delphiniums I ever saw: A man arrived at the door bearing two tremendous spokes of blue. He looked so stupid and so gallant at the same time, outdone by his preposterous bouquet—their stems were the length of a car antenna. Soaring from his fist, they poked the doorframe; I stared, dazzled, while the hosts, my two friends, scrambled to find some vessel to accommodate his sapphire wands.
A handful of years later, my mom gave me an envelope of seed marked “Delphiniums 1966.” She’d been cleaning out my great-aunt’s things and found them in a drawer. They must have been leftover from Hope Farm in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire, the farm named after my great-aunt, and well, the condition of positive anticipation.
Hope’s husband, Uncle Bill, was a courageous man with a feeble heart, a stock broker whose doctor said (preposterously), “Try farming,” and so they did, replacing financial stock with livestock. They raised and milked Jerseys and delivered milk around town. They never had children of their own, but my mother spent her childhood summers helping Aunt Hope in the kitchen, and then fetching the flat basket and clippers, heading out to the garden to cut bouquets.
By the time I was born, Aunt Hope and Uncle Bill had sold their herd. However, as I grew, my aspirations to raise animals and vegetables intensified, and when I’d visit or write to her, she’d council me with all she knew.
In their envelope, her seeds look like coarsely ground coffee or flecks of tobacco, and I wish I could guess why—unlike so many other things from her life—they persisted. Also I wondered, were her delphiniums especially beautiful that year—the color of Uncle Bill’s eyes or a first-prize ribbon at the Sandwich Grange fair? All through their blooming: U.S. planes started bombing Hanoi; race riots ignited in Cleveland; Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle; workers broke ground for the World Trade Center.
By then, mom was away at college. My dad was working in New York City. I wasn’t even a gleam—my parents weren’t going to meet for two more years.
When I shake the envelope, it chatters with potential: ch, ch, ch.
In 2002, the summer my great-aunt died, I was working at a perennial farm in Vermont for a man who could propagate anything, even ladies slippers. I showed him the packet over my lunch break, “Could you germinate them?” I asked, “Do you think they might take?”
He looked doubtful, “Mmm, probably not. But I’ll try. ”
Suddenly the contents of my envelope seemed more like a purse of valuable coins. I had to choose—should I invest them with the propagator, to potentially see a return in the form of blooming things? I knew if each seed grew, there’d be 68 plants, producing a congregation of blue spires. However, if I turned them over, only to learn their potency had expired, then all I’d have is the empty envelope: Summer 1966. Then, silly as it is to say, she’d really be gone.
So I held onto them. I brought them with me when I moved into a farmhouse and began raising my Jersey heifers. The seeds bided their time in a drawer while I planted a garden around a perennial bed that included some delphiniums from my old boss’ inventory.
Every June those tremendous spokes shot up through the carrots and potatoes, and by mid-July, they loomed, cerulean blue over the zucchinis and beets. Amid the low-lying vegetables they looked stupid and gallant. I began to anticipate their blooming, a season within a season.
One year, during delphinium season, seven years into work on my own hope-driven farm, I met a man with eyes the same color as the flowers.
Three years later, in that enchanted mini-season, we eloped beside the garden in front of the people who made us. I carried a fistful of blue stalks for my bouquet.
When my father, the pastor, asked if anyone knew of any reason why we shouldn’t be joined in marriage, there were so few of us to reply that the question seemed preposterous. The garden was our congregation; the delphiniums, witness to our vows, swayed in what I think was an assent to proceed.
Recently, I was pawing through a box at the back of mother’s closet. In it, I found some pictures from Hope Farm. There’s one of my great-aunt standing in the dooryard after a whopper of a snowstorm, holding her toddler-sized cats, Poukie and Missy, under each arm. There are pictures of her flower garden, featuring her soaring delphiniums. I also found an envelope, just like the one containing the flower seed, only this one was marked, “given me by Mary Wright.” Inside there’s a snippet of yellow lined paper containing a handwritten passage:
“Lord, help me to go to seed. The fruit I want to bear for you is not some big juicy accomplishment, but the subtle scattering of seeds of your love in many hearts. One seed planted in a heart, nourished and encouraged to grow can eventually mature and go to seed yielding a hundred loving kindnesses… help me to go to seed for you.”
My Aunt Hope once admitted to me how she and Uncle Bill had desperately wanted to have children, but, “it wasn’t meant to be.” She remembered her sole pregnancy ended soon after she and Uncle Bill went for a swim in a too-chilly swimming hole.
It’s been 50 years since she gathered the seed from her garden and pocketed it for a girl who hadn’t been dreamed of yet. This envelope has come over the White Mountains, and across the Connecticut River. I shake the dark pellets into my hand and let each drop into a cup of this soil. Either way, she continues to live with me.
Julia Shipley is the author of three poetry chapbooks and most recently, a prose collection Adam’s Mark: Writing from the Ox House, supported by a 2010-11 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and published by Plowboy Press.