In 1953 — and during the mid-point of suburbia mania in this country — my father proudly purchased the family home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. One year later, I accompanied him on a short but necessary excursion close to downtown, where in the name of progress we witnessed the demolition of a late 19th century mansion. My father’s mission at the site was not to observe bulldozers raze a mansion, but as I later came to understand, he was an advocate for nature and had come to rescue some irises.
Of course, I had no idea at the time what irises were nor their immediate significance, but I thought I understood in part our reason for being there.
The homes in our subdivision were scantly adorned, especially where foliage was concerned. Most yards had two trees planted in them, usually of the oak and magnolia varieties. The fronts of the houses had four arborvitaes and four nandina bushes, each systemically placed in such a manner where everything in the neighborhood appeared identical. But my father wanted something more, so that afternoon he dug up several groups of irises and proceeded to transplant them in the front and on the southwest side of our home.
In the spring of 1955, they bloomed. The front produced the typical light purple irises, but on the southwest side of the house — and much to the surprise of my father — stood a large group of white irises which seemed to delight him the most. I don’t know why, but I think it had something to do with the symbol of peace and purity they represented. I don’t think it was planned, either. It just happened.
Through the years my father added more beauty to his yard landscaping it with roses, forsythias, a split-rail fence and a pecan tree which eventually yielded 100 pounds of nuts annually.
Each Saturday he religiously manicured his yard, but on Sunday, he rested.
When my father died in 1988, his irises were still blooming.
Nine years later my mother decided she could no longer afford to live alone and sold their home. It wasn’t monetary issues which forced her to sell, but rather safety concerns. The once tranquil gardens and atmosphere of our suburb had slowly evaporated into the weeds and sewers of drugs, crime and violence. Through it all, however, my father’s irises survived.
In July 1997, just prior to my mother locking the door of their home for the final time, I went out and dug up the majority of my father’s irises and brought them back to Northeast Tennessee.
And, it was only after I planted the irises in Butler, did I begin to think about their real significance. How many years had these irises bloomed, and what was their meaning?
Granted, I don’t know the length of time they may or may not have bloomed in the front yard of that late 19th century mansion, but if the house was built in 1880, and it’s 2019, I could hypothetically and conceivably argue they’ve been blooming for 139 consecutive years.
I don’t mean to sound trite either — like stopping to smell the roses — but each spring I applaud my father’s irises, saved from eradication by a man who seemed to understand the need to save the Earth before it became popular. Furthermore, I find myself thinking he just recognized the beauty of irises in much the same manner as Vincent van Gogh did when he painted “Irises.”
That same individuality is created when I observe each spring those liberated irises blooming in the front yard of our home. I know what and whom they represent. Of course, the irises don’t speak, nor do they tell me their secrets that perhaps they were blooming long before my father was born. However, they have satisfied something far greater than I’m capable of putting into words.
So, last month I dug up a group of my father’s irises — which continually multiply each year — and returned them to Arkansas for our daughter, Beth, and her family to plant around their new home. It’s there, only a few miles from their original location, where those irises will continue to bloom as a reminder that while time may indeed move forward — memories remain forever.
Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at [email protected]