by Mickey Hunt

David Welch, Sr. arranged flowers, but right away you’ve probably adopted a wrong impression about him, because he nearly made the art form into a masculine sport. As with the great chefs and composers of the world, most of the top floral designers are men. I suppose his regular work lent masculinity to his love for color, pattern, balance, theme—all those elements contributing to a finished arrangement. And his were not just “arrangements”—the masses of flowers you see at weddings or funerals—rather, they portrayed natural environments and worlds in themselves reflecting an idealization of life. He was a landscaper and a retail nursery owner—had been all of his adult life.
He didn’t actually begin flower arranging until his wife died four years ago. That’s when he ordered several boxes of flowers and made the funeral displays himself, weeping off and on. Those displays were simple like what you usually see, he being a beginner, though they served general expectations well enough.
Funeral flowers… never help the bereaved… They’re mere thoughts, symbols of sympathy and consolation, and not real in themselves.
Hannah is real. She emanates a beauty that catches your eye, yes, but becomes even more apparent and satisfying the more you watch her, the more you get to know her. A complicated beauty and intelligence that might intimidate most men, the beauty of a talented movie star when she isn’t made up and glamorized. Hannah was a friend of David’s daughter, Olivia, was the same age as her, and she worked at the nursery in the summers, the Bluestone Nursery and Landscaping. Hannah had been pursuing a horticultural degree at North Carolina State University, and when she graduated, she came on board as a manager.
Before long, David wanted Hannah to be in charge of opening a flower shop to be associated with the retail nursery. Their story begins early one morning when she came charging into his office.
“I really don’t want this new job,” she said. “I don’t see any meaning in it. I’ve told you my goal is to grow native plants and restore people’s rural property to a natural state—weeding out their exotic-invasives.”
Her ambition, as is obvious to anyone who knew about the place then, contradicted Bluestone’s universe, because the nursery sold some of those horrible, noxious, foreign invaders, and installed them in customer’s landscapes.
“We have to diversify,” David said. “People still get married and die, even if they don’t have money. They die, anyway. And they all—”
“Need flowers,” she finished for him. “Diversify. That’s my idea. Get rid of your Euonymus alatus—they’re spreading all over the woods around here. People should turn their yards into food producing gardens. The flower shop is a direct step away from what I want to do.”
Hannah is passionate about these things, but she was really thinking that people still get married, just not her.
David mused before he spoke again. Hannah stood in place shifting her weight from foot to foot, uncertain about what the day ahead would hold, uncertain of her job. Finally, David said, “I thought you were agreeable to the flower shop.”
“I’m not. I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“Alright. Alright. I can find someone else. It’ll take a while. I’m disappointed, because this will delay starting. I was actually, uh, going to become involved in the shop myself. Not running it, but I was thinking of teaching a flower arranging class—”
“Uh huh. Umm, do you want me on my regular job today, because if so, the store is about to open. I need to unload a truck.”
“—more along the lines of Japanese flower arranging.”
“Really?” This got her attention and put the truck out of mind. “That’s what I like.” She now took a chair. “I never made time to learn Ikebana. We just touched on it in a horticulture class. What school do you follow?”
“I learned from books and the internet. I suppose I have my own style. I’d like to do some formal study and learn the traditional approaches.”
“Why don’t you?”
“My philosophy is about how plants and rocks should be placed as they appear in nature, in relationship to each other—I don’t use any man-made materials or cultivated varieties, usually. The arrangement should draw the observer into the creation. And the artist should be invisible, as if the flowers, branches, and stones were tossed into place, but still are perfect for each other.”
“That’s what I think,” she said, but she was also thinking, You should apply this philosophy to the rest of your business.
“I have been listening to you,” he said as a gentle remonstrance. “What about unloading the truck now? We have employees waiting for instructions.”
“Oh my gosh,” she said and ran out of the office.
Hannah did take the job of opening the flower shop for Bluestone Nursery, and David did a formal study when, during the following winter, he flew to Japan and attended an Ikebana school for three weeks. When he returned he started teaching classes, and Hannah was among his first students. They sold quite a few arrangements, and David entered some of his best into the local county fair. Surprisingly, his style caught on, partly due to the photographs Hannah made, and in time he gained a reputation as a master, though he didn’t feel he deserved the acclaim. Sometimes he was invited to speak around the state, and this enhanced his nursery business, especially when a prominent regional newspaper ran a feature story on him.
Late one afternoon David came to the flower shop, a separate building along the busy road that the retail nursery was situated on. David’s shop didn’t smell chemically like some florist shops do, but was more like a fresh meadow. Hannah was staring into a glass-walled refrigerator with a clipboard in hand. Her dark hair was arranged—it wasn’t arranged, it fell in natural folds onto her shoulders and neck as it often does, and she has a way of absent-mindedly brushing it from her face. I’m sure there was a stray leaf in her hair.
An employee was sweeping up in the back workroom.
“Excuse me, Hannah,” David said. “May I ask you a question?” He wouldn’t have picked the leaf from her hair.
“Sure. Just a second.” She finished scribbling on her clipboard—the flower orders for the next week—while David wandered into her office.
In a minute she came in and dropped into her chair with a sigh. “What can I do for you?”
“The International Ikebana Society asked me to speak, and do a demonstration arrangement at their annual convention.”
“Great. Where is it?”
Tokyo. I don’t really want to go.”
“Why not?”
“I already went to Japan once. It’s enough. Tokyo is a big city and I don’t like cities. It’s in May, which is our busiest month.”
“I’d go, if I were you. I’m sure we’ll survive here. You could get out of the city and look around.”
“It’s not the same traveling alone.” David paused here a moment and then rolled along with, “I want to ask if you will go with me. I’d cover all expenses—I’ll take a business deduction. They have cultural programs you could take, things like bamboo craft, silk corsages, things to add to our offerings at the shop.”
“Why me?” she asked as if he had not explained enough already.
Still sweeping, the employee passed outside her office door.
“Ah, to help collect native materials for my arrangement,” David said. “It might not be easy in Tokyo.”
Hannah bit her lower lip, thinking. “Separate rooms in the hotel, right?”
David gasped. “Yes! Yes! Of course. I’m shocked you felt you had to ask.”
“I didn’t have to ask. But half the people here think you and I are having an affair.”
“Oh.” David was sobered.
“It’s not your fault. Not your fault. You’ve not done or said anything improper. The more I deny it, the more everyone disbelieves me. It’s because I don’t have a boyfriend, and you, you’re fit and trim for your age.” She was remembering him mowing the lawn while shirtless—pushing a mower—at the store after hours.
“I’m flattered, because I’m getting to be the old man. But no boyfriend? I didn’t know. I don’t understand. What’s wrong with young men?”
“I—” Hannah stopped.
“Men have become emasculated,” David said, filling the silence. “They’re afraid to take risks and assume responsibilities. I have a friend in Oregon who always said he wanted to start a school for single men 25 and older, an outdoor school to teach them how to be men.”
“Olivia mentioned him.”
“The graduation exercise was to be two weeks backpacking in Alaska wilderness. They’d be dropped off by air taxi. Then they’d receive a certificate of eligibility.”
“Where are all the graduates?” Hannah’s voice was remote, withdrawn.
“He never did it—the school. It was only a dream of his. I was thinking… it’s a personal question, but—have you ever had any… eligible men in your life?”
No doubt, David didn’t understand right away why Hannah broke down and cried—he had never seen her do this before. She talked through the tears without a break. “I have a few friends, but they don’t really care about me as a woman. Only friends. You might not believe this, but I’ve never been kissed by a guy, never. They never call me, I have to call them and half the time they’re never available. I have a problem letting my feelings be known. Maybe I’m giving the wrong signals. I’ll be 28 next year.”
“Hmm.” David waited a while before saying gently, “You are an independent creature, but you’re not the problem. If I were a younger man, it wouldn’t be a problem for me. I aimed for the best, no matter how inaccessible. I tell my sons to do the same.” Here David halted for an inexplicable reason, inexplicable at the time, and then he continued. “Someday I’ll tell you how I courted my wife, Marcia.”
“Let me think about it, about the trip to Japan,” Hannah said.
“Sounds fair enough.”
She went with him to Japan. On the long series of flights he was careful not to touch her and she not to touch him, and they were successful until they both fell asleep at the same time, which happened more than once. When he awoke first, he probably eased away and when she awoke first, she didn’t. Neither was very embarrassed. They didn’t talk much. Being so close physically pushed them apart in other ways. But at some point she asked him, “Are you disappointed because none of your children want to take over the nursery business?”
“They had their fill of it when they were young. They’ll probably sell it when I’m gone. Maybe you’ll buy it someday.” David looked at her and smiled.
“If I could afford it. The Bluestone… Olivia told me about the name. You were working at a rhododendron nursery in college, in the summer.”
“I’m not positive it was a star sapphire, but it was beautiful.” David gazed through the airplane’s window, remembering. “They do find gem quality corundum in north Georgia. It was huge, the size of two fists.”
“But you gave it to the nursery owner?”
“Yep. It might have been worth a lot of money.”
“You gave it away.”
“But if I kept it my life would be different. I like my life as it is.”
“You have three children.”
“Three and four grandchildren… five, I mean. My son Calvin Joel and his wife have the four. Olivia and her husband are expecting their first.”
“I know. You have another son? Nobody talks about him.”
“He’s been a wanderer, but he’s done with wandering now.”
David abruptly changed the subject by saying, “Besides what I’ve told you before, there’s another reason why I wanted you to come with me. Most of the attendees are women, older women from the U.S. and Scandinavia, as you’ll see. Having you there will keep them off of me. I can’t stand their flirting. It’s obnoxious.”
Hannah showed pain on her face, but only said, “You’re wearing your wedding ring.”
“It doesn’t always work.”
Nothing terribly spectacular happened during the Ikebana convention. Hannah and David often pursued different paths during the day and met for a late restaurant dinner. They spent a whole day together collecting materials for his demonstration arrangement, intending to acquire the bulk of it surreptitiously, clipping from parks, open spaces, or commercial landscapes, and purchasing the rest from shops.
On one foraging stroll through a neighborhood, they found that practically every square foot of outside ground was trimmed and groomed. As they were about to make their first illicit cut, an old Japanese man stepped up to them and shook his head. None of them knew enough language to communicate nuances, but when Hannah showed the man her convention ID tag, he frowned, bowed slightly, and said in heavily accented English, “Flower arrangement, flower arrangement.” He pulled clippers from his jacket and motioned for them to follow. As they walked along the sidewalk adjacent to private homes, he stopped now and then to study some flowers or foliage. Occasionally, he clipped something off and handed the results to Hannah. She placed them all into a duffel bag containing damp towels. There were some particularly fine pine branches.
After a bit, a young girl left a house and spoke to the old man in Japanese, then nodded to David and Hannah and said, “Hello. You are Americans? Mr. Masayuki is a gardener for this neighborhood. He has permission. We wish for you good luck at your convention and hope you enjoy Japan.”
Nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary took place except for one evening—the evening set apart for designing the special arrangement.
David’s hotel room was a mess, what with enclaves of sorted geologic and classified plant material, the latter in buckets of water. Leaves and clippings strewn all over the floor and furniture. Hannah brought in a bottle of wine. David was already working at a wooden table the hotel had moved into the room. They would have dinner brought to them later. David talked through his ideas and placed and replaced material in the primary container. From time to time he would undo everything and start over. He was having difficulty finding perfection. It seemed his expectation had risen higher than what was possible in this world, as if the whole concept of flower arranging had fallen short. Once in a while, individual visitors—or a clutch of giddy women—from the convention would drop by to see the progress.
One lady who had been scowling at Hannah said, “So, Mr. Welsh, you plan to recreate your design tomorrow before an audience?”
“And narrate the process, and his thinking,” Hannah replied.
Visitors hadn’t been invited and knew conversation was unwelcome, so after their furtive, admiring looks at David, they never stayed long.
Dinner arrived all under stainless steel domes. The city was growing dark in the windows. Hannah had been taking photographs and said little, until, seeing that David’s mental block had finally immobilized him, she whispered, “We should break.”
There wasn’t much for them to discuss during the meal, unless they were to open a new subject, or an unfinished subject, which Hannah did.
“You said you might tell me how you courted your wife. I’d like to hear about that.”
David assumed a blank look as if this was the furthest thing from his mind.
“You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to,” Hannah said.
“No, it’s okay. I need to clear my head.”
“What was she like, before her stroke?”
“She was… a lot like you.” David looked at her closely. “Feisty.”
Hannah glanced away. “I don’t mean to be.”
“Marcia and I met in college. She was a freshman and I a junior. We were only friends during those two years, and when she had a boyfriend, or I a girlfriend, it was always someone else. None of those romantic college relationships lasted long. When I graduated, I did some overseas work with a service organization, and by the time I returned to the United States, she had moved back to California, and I went to graduate school—in business. I was talking with a Taiwanese friend about women, you know—he was married and wanted to know why I wasn’t—and Marcia was on the list we made of interesting girls I had known. It was a short list. I wasn’t in contact with any of them, and my friend suggested I seek them out. Marcia was the only one who wrote back.
“We started corresponding, and after some months I flew out to California to propose. She hadn’t told me she had a steady boyfriend, but he wasn’t ready to commit—had not been ready for far too long—and she accepted my marriage proposal on the spot.”
“That’s crazy.”
“But it’s a crazy world.”
“It’s easier for men,” Hannah said. “If women take the initiative, decent men think they’re forward, or loose. And men don’t initiate. Olivia told me about a guy who said he’d take care of her, but he would never call her. He expected her to call him. She said, ‘You want to marry me, but you won’t call me on the phone?’”
“I heard the story.”
“She eventually proposed to him.”
“My suggestion, and he turned her down.” David shook his head. “She has a good husband now.”
“He’s younger than she is,” Hannah said, pouring some wine. “Will you ever marry again?”
“I hate traveling alone, but living alone isn’t too bad, in our house. I’d rather have Marcia. Marcia before the stroke…”
“You lost her years before she died.”
“The best part of her.”
“It’s not good to be alone,” Hannah said as a platitude.
“I read about how after World War I in Europe, so many young men had been killed that it produced a demographic vacuum. Women who would have gotten married and who were raised to be wives and mothers became old maids. It was the war. We are in the same situation now.” He put down his chopsticks.
“Not because of the wars, but because of the culture.”
“Yeah,” David said to begin a long silence, then, “I’m ready to work now.”
Hannah, who had drunk more than her half of the bottle of wine, yawned.
This time Hannah forgot her camera, stood next to him, and offered remarks and critiques, even placing material to illustrate her thoughts. In less than an hour, they were done. They stood back to admire the natural perfection in miniature they had created.
“Will I be able to make it again fresh tomorrow?” he asked.
“It will… be better.”
It seemed perfectly natural when, as they stood side-by-side, Hannah wrapped her arm around his, sided up to him, and leaned her head on his shoulder. She yawned again, sleepily.
He put his hand on hers and she turned to face him. He restored her arm in his and walked her to the door of his room and into the hallway. When they reached her door, he said, “Where’s your key?”
When he had her key, he opened the door and she stepped inside and turned around.
He stood his ground.
“Are you coming in?” Then, seeing his dismay, in a panic she said, “To talk, I mean. I could make us tea. My room isn’t trashed like yours is.”
“You’re like Ruth,” he said. “But I’m not Boaz. You’re a dear girl. Goodnight, Hannah.”
Hannah was so tired that she didn’t feel anything specific then about David’s reaction to her romantic invitation, if invitation it was, since she herself wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure until morning when her mind was awake. She was attracted to him—loved him, actually—and her womanly instincts had taken over. Ruth, Boaz? In her hotel room, she found the story on the internet, a complex story, but basically about a young widow who had offered herself to a noble older man who took her as his wife.
Hannah cried then for a long while in her room.
David, Sr. was not Boaz. It seemed clear enough. He never discussed the incident with her, never even mentioned it again, not on the airplane trip home, nor at the nursery or the flower shop, and until he passed away from an unsuspected heart ailment two months later, he treated Hannah the same as before, as a friend, a fellow artist, and a valuable employee.
In the evening before the funeral, Hannah climbed the hill behind the nursery and sat there alone. The hill is mostly pasture with a few oak trees. She looked down at the buildings, the greenhouses, and the precise arrangements of trees and shrubs in containers and balled-and-burlaped in the heeling-in beds. The broad beds of brilliant color and the empty parking lot in front. The flower shop at the corner of the property. All this the hub of the life’s work of an older man she had grown to love. These moments on the hill with the sun sinking below the horizon behind her was her parting, her grieving. She believed she would never meet anyone else like him.
His death brought me home, home for the first time in years. It was comforting to be back in the town where I grew up. His death and the funeral were my graduation from a long, painful schooling in life. The music of the ceremony and the meaning of the flowers overwhelmed me with joy. I spoke at the funeral, and it was my valedictorian address. I wasn’t convinced if I should talk about such things at a memorial, or if I could get through without breaking down, but death brings out honesty and humility, it destroys illusions; a seed must die as a seed before it can grow into the plant it’s meant to be.
During my speech, I heard murmuring in the audience and two or three people walked out; it’s a touchy issue and people are touchy.
I told the five to six hundred people in the church that I had lived as a gay man for a dozen years, and that only recently I had renounced this life and pledged to seek what God and nature intended for me: to be a husband and father, even at my age of 34, if I ever met the right woman. I told about how my own dad, David, Sr. had never shied from telling me the truth, never made it easy to rebel, never conceded to my confusion, never acted as if certain relationships I had were normal, never hated me, and never gave up on me. I talked about being raised in our family, and how Dad taught us to work and gave us a love for plants leading me to an advanced degree in botany, to satisfying research, and a university teaching position in Virginia. I thanked him one last time for who he was.
After the ceremony, there was a reception—a long, wide line of people to greet. Most of them didn’t know me, and I stood by myself much of the time. A few polite nods. My sister and brother and their families received all the attention. Those who knew me had known me as a child, and were perhaps uncomfortable talking with the dubious, grieving grown man. But there was a young woman who came right up without waiting in line. She was wearing an elegant black dress and a purple orchid corsage.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Hannah. I worked for your dad.”
“Hannah, glad to meet you. I’m David—David, Junior. You gathered as much from my speech. I heard you made the fantastic flower arrangement on the altar. Until you walked up to me, I’ve never seen anything more amazing, so lovely.”
“David, Junior,” she said, flushing. “You look a lot like him. Your dad and sister referred to you sometimes, but I never heard your name before this moment.”
“Not surprising, but I’m here now. Dad had been trying to get me to visit since his last Japan trip. I think he’d be proud of me today. He knew of the changes happening in my life.”
“You gave a brave eulogy. Since his last Japan trip, you say?” She seemed to glow even more. “I know he would be proud and happy.”
“Maybe he’s been thinking about you more than you realize. Umm, remember how the Bluestone Nursery got its name?”
“I’m sure Dad told us, but I’ve forgotten.”
“The star sapphire he found in north Georgia, the one he gave away.”
“Oh, yeah. Now, I remember. How does—?”
“But I’m wondering, do you like landscaping with edible and native plants?”
“Dear girl, it’s my specialty,” I said with a foolish grin. “How did you know? Hey, when we’re done here, let’s talk someplace. What, what are you doing this evening? What’s absolutely the finest locally owned restaurant in town? My treat.”
The epilogue to this story, as if I needed to explain, is that Hannah and I married, and I quit my job at the university to run Bluestone Nursery and Landscaping with her.


1 comment:

  1. My brother created the sapphire design in the photograph. I found a double-fist sized gem while digging at a nursery in northeast Georgia and gave it to the owner. I think it was smoky quartz, but you never know. Click on photo to enlarge.