Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mock orange for real life

I was unpacking toys from boxes in Chloe’s new playroom when a warm, sweet-smelling breeze floated across my face through the open window. It smelled so good that it stopped me in my tracks, and I looked out the window to see where it might be coming from.

I got the answer right away: A tall, flowering shrub with delicate white blossoms that was blooming right outside. I hadn’t noticed it until then. Had it just flowered? I wasn’t sure, but it was beautiful, and it smelled so good, like a pure, clean summer perfume.

I know nothing about plants except how to swiftly kill them, so I asked everyone who came to visit what these gorgeous flowers were called. There were lots of guesses, but I finally got the answer from my mother-in-law, Sharon, a gardening whiz who could grow plump, voluptuous roses in a cardboard box filled with gravel. The beautiful mystery flower was called was mock orange.

Over the next few days, I found myself just standing in Chloe’s playroom, hoping to catch that heavenly smell on a breeze again, or else standing outside in the front yard, burying my face in the flowers. I couldn’t see the flowers from inside the house unless I was standing right in the playroom window, and it made me a little sad.

Meanwhile, Chloe has been getting prodigiously filthy every single day the backyard, where a wooden swing-set sits in a little sandy clearing under some pine and maple trees. Every day she plays outside, and every night, she comes into the house with her sneakers filled with sand, and with dirt ringed around her neck and ankles and caked under her fingernails.

Her crutches are taking a beating, too, and it shows. They’re being sprayed with sticky, smelly mosquito repellant, and carrying her over grass, dirt, sand, puddles, mud, and all other manner of messy terrain. In a week or two, they’ll make their first appearance on the beach, first at a local lake, and then later, at the seashore, where the sun and saltwater and sand will continue to bleach away their already faded hot pink hue. The crutches’ rubber tips (which I’ve already replaced once) will get worn flat again and again, like old, bald tires on a car. A plastic piece of the crutch cuff recently snapped off in my hand, too.

Strictly speaking, actually, her crutches aren’t meant for this sort of thing. They’re not supposed to get dirty or filled with grit and sand, and they’re certainly not supposed to get wet. They’re made of metal and plastic. They’re meant to be kept clean and dry, used on safe, flat, surfaces. In school. At the library. At physical therapy. At the mall. To get in and out of the car or the house.

In other words, quiet, clean places where not too much happens. But what almost-7-year-old kid wants a life that’s quiet, clean, and boring? I want her play in the hot sand and jump through frothy waves. I want her to stomp in puddles and squash her feet through mud. I want her to pick her way down a pine-needle carpeted path in the woods.

What I don’t want is to follow her around chanting a chorus of “don’ts:” Don’t walk there, don’t get dirty, don’t get wet. Her crutches are meant to open up the world to her, not take her only to the edges of all the places she’s not allowed to go. What’s the point of having crutches at all if she isn’t going to use them to really live?

And so she gets them wet and dirty and I don’t care. Which brings me back to those lovely mock orange blossoms.

Chloe, my mom, and I spent Saturday morning at Canal Street Antique Mall, an old, brick former mill building that's filled with two cavernous floors of dusty antiques: Stacks of doors, windows with rippled glass, heavy black typewriters, cracked teapots, wind-up bell alarm clocks, ornate sewing machines, wire bird cages, violins with broken strings, porcelain dolls with lacy collars and dirty faces, a brown mink hat. Anything you can think of. I was looking for stuff for the new house, and fell in love with a rustic black metal planter. I knew exactly what I would use it for.

When I got home, I pulled a pair of heavy duty sheers from a kitchen drawer and walked right outside to the mock orange blossoms. I clipped three of the woody stalks, shook the blooms free of a few nectar-drinking bugs, and arranged them in mason jars in the planter. They filled the kitchen with their beautiful fragrance, and every time I look at the centerpiece, I smile. 

Maybe you’re not supposed to clip the flowers from a decorative shrub. But who is it there for, planted in the front of the house where I can’t see it or smell it? Is it only for the benefit of neighbors or for strangers driving by? Or is it for our pleasure, too?

Like Chloe’s crutches, I choose to use them. 

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