The Stepmother’s Garden

Walking outside to top off the water in my courtyard fountain, I bend down to get a whiff of the tiny stars on my Daphne odora. She’s still a humble plant, small but happy, doing her late-winter thing. She grows in a pot and I am afraid to mess with her because any sudden movement will cause her to pout and die. Daphnes are just like that.

In a nanosecond, her lemony, sweet perfume hits my brain and I’m transported back to 1976, to the garden of the stepmother. She wasn’t a gardener. She was a school teacher, but one of those well-educated, good looking people that could do pretty much anything, and do it well. She kind of sparkled.

Her garden was a Sunset Magazine showplace and was featured in a multi-page, full color spread. It propelled her to horticultural stardom and for her fifteen seconds, she hosted parties and tours, hobnobbing with whoever was noteworthy at the time.

I was sixteen and pretty rough and raw around the edges, having endured a lot more BS than kids should be subjected to. The stepmother and I were not chummy. She had high expectations and I thought she was a snob. But I also wished like hell I could do something to make her like me.

On the north side of the stepmother’s large and beautiful home, grew a sprawling Daphne odora and come February, it would shower itself in fragrant blossoms as if it knew it belonged in a garden of greatness. I’d go out and snip off little tips to bring up to my bedroom. I might have been rough but I knew how to appreciate the finer things.

Come summer, the stepmother’s wood planter boxes, bordering the edge of expansive decking were overflowing with a carnival of colorful Impatiens flowers. Not those skimpy little ones they sell nowadays but fat, blousy things that spilled and thrilled. I wonder if my memory is faulty or if she had magic soil.

Funny. I’ve grown Daphne odora all my adult life, in all my gardens. They’ve been temperamental things, often keeling over in protest to my design whims. Exasperated, I’ll buy another plant and try again because I can not allow myself to be without that late-winter fragrance. And maybe in some esoteric, Jungian way, I need the memory as much as I want the plant.

A tiny sprig sits beside me and perfumes the room and I breathe in the old-time February sweetness. For better and for worse, I’m back there in that showplace garden, a place of seemingly effortless, infuriating beauty — the stepmother’s garden.