Back in P.S. 106, in the Bronx, I learned that the magnolia is the only tree that gets its flowers before its leaves. I think it was Mrs. Sills who taught us that little nugget in 3rd grade, though I can’t be sure. It’s amazing that I remember it at all. But there’s another reason that magnolias are special — to me, at any rate.
In 1984, my husband Geoffrey was in the hospital for a month. His illness wasn’t life-threatening, but it did require time to kill all the little beasties that had taken up residence. (Remnants of his long-ago days as a Peace Corps Volunteer, perhaps.)
While he was the sick one, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for me, either, as anyone who’s ever been a caregiver knows. I went to the hospital every day with magazines, treats and moral support, and with whatever good cheer and/or firmness was necessary to run interference with doctors and nurses.
“I’m here, I’ll shave him, you don’t have to do it.”
“I absolutely insist the tropical disease specialist include Geoffrey on his rounds. Today!”
“Would you like some of the cookies I brought in today?”
I also cared for our daughter and kept our consulting practice alive. I would have done anything to help Geoffrey get better; I didn’t mind any of it. But I was weary.
The day before Mother’s Day, I was feeling rather low, maybe even a bit sorry for myself. I’m not proud of that, but there it is. I went to my friend Barbara’s plant nursery to buy myself a present. Walking into the greenhouse, with its powerful smell of earth, fertility, and growth, was the beginning of the cure for what ailed me. I walked around and looked at every plant until I saw a perfectly-shaped magnolia. I knew it was the one for me and my mood lifted as I took it to the register.
But Barbara said it had already been sold – “See that ribbon around the pot?” – and I should pick out something else. I cajoled and groveled. I tried to cash in on our friendship. I really wanted that magnolia. No dice. I didn’t see anything I liked nearly as much, so went home empty-handed and petulant.
The next day, Mother’s Day, the nursery truck pulled up to my door with a delivery. The driver went into the back of the truck to find it, and I felt a kind of pre-gratitude. I gave myself a peptalk: “Ok, it’s not the magnolia, but it’s so nice to have been thought of.”
When he emerged, I was overjoyed: It was MY magnolia. It turns out that Geoffrey, the day before my visit to the greenhouse, had called Barbara from the hospital and asked her to “pick out the nicest thing in the place for Carole.” And, amazingly, Barbara had picked out MY magnolia before I did. When I came shopping and picked out the same one, she knew. All the time I was cajoling and groveling, she must have been smiling inside, maybe even thinking of The Gift of the Magi. This story still gives me chills.
This year, the magnolia bloomed very late. But I knew it eventually would, as it has for the past 30 years. Its tender-pink flowers are as glorious as a burst of fireworks. To me, they are fireworks: joyous, boisterous, celebratory.
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