He gave me an armful of lilies
When he arrived home from work each summer day, Grandpa always worked in the yard for some time before he entered his house. He had lilies to tend. Hundreds of daylilies. Blossoms of creamy yellow, vibrant orange, sherbet pink, and mahogany purple perched atop their long, slender stems. Grandpa was their caretaker both at lunchtime, when their petals opened wide in the sunlight, and at the end of the workday, when they had started to close.
His yard was weedless. Even the shriveled lily blooms, which eventually fall off of their own accord, were never allowed to litter the flower beds. Grandpa had usually picked most of them off before they had a chance to fall, anyway.
Sometimes he'd pick a few especially beautiful blossoms for Grandma in the morning before he had to leave for work. He'd cut them short-stemmed so they could float like water lilies in a bowl of water.
Grandpa's lilying began when Grandma gave him some bulbs for Father's Day. Over the years, the collection grew as the lilies themselves multiplied and as he and Grandma bought new ones. I remember looking through his flower catalogs - filled with nothing but colorful varieties of these slim-petaled plants.
Grandpa's yard was a miniature botanical lily garden. Flower beds bordered three sides of the house and filled the sloping incline in the front yard. They also bordered both the top and base of the head-high rock wall in the back yard. A stone footpath led from the front porch steps to the back stoop. At one time, a small stone goldfish pond lay in the backyard, too. All the rock work was done by Grandpa.
During the depression Grandpa, his wife, and their two young daughters would get into their 1929 Chevy to go rock hunting in rural Iowa creeks. They'd remove the back seat of the car to make room for as many rocks as possible. Once home, the family unloaded the rocks and piled them in the garage. In his spare time, Grandpa used them to construct the wall, path, and flower bed borders. Large and small flat stones, fossilized rocks, and twinkly geodes were assembled into a crazyquilt of textures, shapes, and colors. Eventually the patches would be laced together by tiny yellow creeping sedum.
Not long after the wall was completed, it was washed down into a muddy heap by a heavy rain. Grandpa had to make a more sturdy foundation and start all over. The second wall stood fast - and still stands today.
Even the shady side of the house was a mosaic of rocks. A 2-foot-high, 10 -foot-wide terrace stretching the entire length of the house was supported on the sides and tiled on the top with rocks. Wildflowers sprouted in the few rockless areas on top.
With so many lilies and rocks, only small patches of lawn remained. Instead of using a power mower, Grandpa pushed his old cylindrical hand mower to clip the grass. On quiet summer days, its gentle whirring changed pitch and rhythm with the motions of the pusher. When Grandpa maneuvered this instrument around vigorously, his dark wavy hair stood out from his head like Beethoven's.
On Sunday afternoon, people would drive by slowly to admire Grandpa's flowers. Sometimes they'd stop to ask if they could have some plants for their own yards. Never thinking to ask them for money, Grandpa often just dug up some lilies on the spot.
His family enjoyed the flower garden, too. As he shared particular lilies with us, his wide mustachioed smile and dark gleaming eyes radiated joy. We especially liked the ones he pollinated and named after us: Opha, Margaret, Helen, and Gloria. He never registered them or tried to market them; he just wanted to have them for his home.
Lilies seemed to provide him a welcome contrast from his regular workday. For 42 years he operated a small shoe-shine parlor on the main street downtown. He'd owned a restaurant before that - and made candy before that. He was a Greek immigrant. As a 10-year-old, he'd come to St. Louis with his father and one brother from the small island of Kithira.
After I was married, my husband and I visited this island for a day and a half. We met Grandpa's youngest brother, Anargyous. He looked like Grandpa's twin! We spoke no Greek and he spoke no English, but we communicated well nonverbally. As we walked together through his village to see the house where Grandpa was born, I felt strangely at home when I noted stone walls and stone paths everywhere.
The next morning, just before my husband and I had to leave, Anargyous proudly showed us his walled-in yard. I immediately spied many pale pink surprise lilies. Had lilies been at Grandpa's home place when he was a child? I wondered if Anargyous knew that Grandpa raised lilies. As if he knew what I was thinking, he smiled and walked slowly up to one plant. He picked it. And another. And another! When he finally stopped, he presented me with an armful of lilies. Yes. He knew.