Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (6/19) — Chapter Six, Rose (3/4)

FROM BUD TO FADING BLOSSOM, this heirloom rose retains its beauty throughout its evolution.


BOONE, N.C. (Nov. 4, 2019) – Sometimes we have to come down off the mountain, at least for a day or two, to get back in touch with what’s truly important.

For this chapter, I’ve looked up so much I didn’t know about roses—about rosehips, Knock Outs and yellow hybrids named Dolly Parton, and now heirlooms—that my Google newsfeed is now filled with articles about roses and their cultivation from some sources that may or may not be reliable. I’m being exposed to all kinds of information, wanted or not, good or bad. Ultimately I have to judge for myself.

We have no roses here at the Rutherwood house, not unless you count what we think is a wild sweetbriar tangled up in the big rhododendron next to our basement door. All of our cultivated roses—like Dolly and the Knock Outs—grow in our front and back yards in Morganton. Actually, the latter variety thrives, ironically, in the demilitarized zone next to our new neighbors up the street. Dear ol’ Dolly is all on us, thankfully.

That’s also the case with the gorgeous purple rose I’ve mentioned before, the anonymous heirloom that is leading the pack in the running for our home and garden’s MVP title—the Most Valuable Plant at our house off the mountain, at least. The dahlias are perennial favorites, but they’ve gotten stiff competition this year from Dolly and, especially, from that fragrant purple rose. It’s our Purple Rose of Rural King.

PHOTOGRAPHED ON SEPT. 22ND, this was our purple heirloom rose’s last blossom this season.

Just as Woody Allen’s 1985 movie The Purple Rose of Cairo played with ideas of what’s real and what’s not, our purple rose was fantastic in respects. Its beauty was mysterious, almost magical, as anytime I’d look fondly at a fiery, sunset-tinged dahlia across the way, my darlin’ Purple Rose would ruffle her lacy, sweet-smelling petals just so and bid me come caress her curvaceous hips. Hey, I’m talking rosehips, buddy.

Speaking of movies, Timberley and I watched one of our favorites again the other day—Coco, about a Latino boy’s love of music and his devotion to family. The animated movie is set in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, roughly coinciding with the Christian observance of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. Glowing marigolds figure prominently in the film as well as in the Latinx celebration itself.

We love that movie in no small part for its central theme that our spirits live as long as we are remembered by those we’ve left behind. Families construct home altars to revere lost ancestors and to welcome them on the Day of the Dead. Family survivors—as obituaries routinely call us—decorate these elaborate altars, or ofrendas, with photographs of the deceased family members and with objects associated with them.

According to Smithsonian writer Maria Anderson, an ofrenda “includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross … so the spirits can find their way.” And, of course, golden marigolds adorn the ofrenda.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at high noon, sunflowers were on the altar in the glaringly sun-lit sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in Morganton. To the strains of “The Old Rugged Cross” on solo piano, two acolytes—cousins of the young man whose life we would celebrate—carried in the flame to light the altar candles, and the banner whose white streamers and tinkling bells caught the spirit wind.

Perhaps the most touching part of the funeral service was hearing the several hundred mourners there raise their voices to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound … I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” No one needed a hymnal. No one needed a chorister or praise team to help us sing together. No one needed a microphone, sound man, or loudspeaker. The swell of caring voices was enough.

Outside, after the service, friends and family gathered on the still-green church lawn under the gnarled boughs of an ancient oak to talk, to cry, to embrace, to smile, and even to laugh about shared memories and newfound associations of the one we had lost and his loved ones. His life and death were not all that had brought us together; many of us were there to show our respect and love for his entire family.

And then on Sunday morning, as part of the First Methodist All Saints’ Day observance, the bell tolled for him again, as well as for the 13 other church members who had died in the past year. Their names and faces appeared one after another on a large screen up front. Acolytes lit white candles on the altar one at a time as each name was called. Family and friends rose in remembrance and respect when the bell tolled for their loved one.

So life goes. When we got home from church on Sunday, I crossed in front of the van to see how the rosehips on our beautiful purple rose were doing. I can’t decide if I should try to germinate the seeds—it’s really hard to do, I’ve read—or if I should just let nature take its course with the seed-bearing fruit of that mystical rose. Maybe that one heirloom rosebush is all we’re meant to enjoy. Then again, maybe not. Maybe there’s more to come.

And so it goes.