I grew Zinneas this summer. I say that with the offhanded confidence of a farmer who has just finished plowing the back forty; except I am not a farmer. I dwell deep in the heart of a city, and I have not grown one thing from seed in my entire life – until now – at the age of sixty-two. I didn’t expect to get so deeply invested in this project when I found a packet of seeds at the back of the utensil drawer in the kitchen – the remnant of a good intentioned impulse buy in ages past. “Why not?” I said and rummaged up two pots from the garage that were already filled with dirt. I sprinkled the seeds lavishly over the top and showered them with water. Then I put the pots on the upstairs porch in the direct sunlight – yes, I read the back of the seed packet – and that was that. Every day I watered the dirt, but in truth, deep down, I didn’t quite believe that anything would come of it. I mean, life from those miniscule bits of black lost in a mass of old mud? I think not.
Then came the day I paused above my pots and was greeted by the tiniest of green leaves growing happily where the day before there had been none. I confess I spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at them in wonder, those tiny leaves of promise. “It’s all true! It works!” was all I could muster in my stupefied, city-dweller mind. From that day on, I was all in. I watched these delicate stems grow bigger leaves, and then larger stems that shot straight up to the sky. I was enchanted. I kept saying each day, “I grew that”, with a wonder and joy that didn’t seem quite warranted for two old pots of dirt on a city porch. But wonder I did. Then the buds came all folded up and green with a speck of color at their center. That day I had to sit down. I was madly in love with Zinnea buds. I began to take pictures of their progress. I started going upstairs just because I wanted to stare at them; to be there when the buds opened into blossoms. I was so proud. Why? I wasn’t the one doing the growing. I wasn’t struggling up out of the dirt or forming a bud that would suddenly burst into a fairy flower. I was proud because I had planted possibilities with that seed. I had watered it. I had wondered and cared and gazed and wondered some more. I stood enchanted. I had the growing conviction that every flower on earth deserves that look of enchantment, that look that wills it to grow, for the simple reason of wanting it to succeed in its beautiful quest – to applaud the final blossom.
While all this was going on out there on the back porch, I made another discovery. Scrolling through endless recipes for green beans and the latest entangled political strife on facebook one day, I chanced upon the face of a woman dressed in the finery of the late 18th century. She was an elderly woman, and the face looked like it was about to say something quite cheeky. I stopped scrolling and stared at her. I liked her instantly. Her name was Mary Delany. Her story was the subject of an article written for the British Museum’s website. It turns out she was an artist. She made exquisite, botanically accurate drawings of flowers with cut paper layered in delicious colors on a black washed background.
Someone had written a book about her: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock. I bought it. Her drawings were stunning. More stunning was the discovery that she did not begin this, her life’s defining endeavor, until the age of 72. And like my zinneas, she too would come to know the love of someone who was completely enchanted by her and willed her to grow into the artist she became. One who would applaud her late but beautiful blooming.
Mary grew up in the landed Granville family, the daughter of the unfortunate third son in an aristocratic British line. He was at the mercy of older brothers for any financial inheritance. His eldest daughter’s only hope of landing a “beneficial marriage” one day was to send her to the royal court of the then Queen Anne of England to be trained as a lady in waiting. At court, she learned to mingle confidently with the rich and famous, being well on her way to catching the husband who would bring her the security longed for and expected by her family at home. Only, Queen Anne inconveniently died without an heir. There was a struggle as to who would ascend the throne. Unfortunately, Mary’s family backed the wrong horse, and the new reigning Monarchs made their displeasure known. Her family was disgraced and forced to disappear into the English countryside to hide away in poverty and humiliation.
Mary’s mother took to her bed with the proverbial vapours and stayed there in despair and denial for many years. Mary’s father, however, determined to make a home for his four children. He read to them constantly, he played games with them, he expected them to practice their music diligently, he put together schedules of work and play that gave his children a sense of purpose. It was here that Mary discovered the magic of scissors on paper. She began to cut paper in lovely designs and made silhouettes of her family playing and working and pasted them on a black background just for fun. She learned many things from her father about collecting and classifying flowers, shells, and leaves. He planted Mary in this good soil, and she had the courage to sprout in its encouraging atmosphere. It was said all through her life that, “whenever she mentioned her father, she flushed with affection”. Mary developed an attractive common sense and stability in an age rife with mindless butterflies. She had a deep faith and believed strongly in family honor and doing the right thing. She was not easily taken by vapours of any kind and approached problems with practical solutions. She was always busy. She had a delightful sense of humor, and she was going to need it.
Mary’s conniving Uncle was hatching a plan to get back his honor at court. Since his younger brother was completely beholden to him for financial support and conveniently had a daughter of marrying age without a penny in her dowry, he brokered a marriage to a rich and politically powerful man, Lord Pendarves, a man who was sixty years old; a gout ridden, drunken beast of a man with jealous tendencies. Sweet Mary, all of seventeen, was sold like a slave to the highest bidder. She did not complain. She did not cry injustice. She simply did it for her family, and her father, for she knew there would be dire consequences for them if she refused. Off to Cornwall she went with this nightmare of a man and dwelled in his castle, which was crumbling into ruins. She ruefully nicknamed the house, “Averno” the “Roman lake that was thought to be the entrance to Hades”. She endured life with this man for seven years; years filled with hidden tears, inner anger, deep sadness, and a constant anxiety at her husband’s moods and drunken fits. She determined to grow, however, even in this rocky soil. She began to fix the castle and to work on the gardens. She spent many hours by the sea collecting and categorizing shells. She read, she practiced more diligently on the harpsichord. She ordered her life as her father had shown her, and this helped her not to wither under the strain. Her husband came to appreciate her steadiness and even succeeded in remaining sober for periods of time for her sake. Yet, quite suddenly, he up and died one night without having yet changed over his will. Mary did not receive one penny of his inheritance. All had been for naught, but she was free at last. She returned to her Aunt and Uncle’s house and promptly fell ill after the long strain of anxiety produced by her marriage. She recovered slowly and discovered in wonder that she had survived.
She spent many years living with friends and relatives. She attended balls, found she had a knack for designing her own gowns, embroidered, learned to paint, danced until dawn. She avoided any and all proposals of marriage on principle and was never pressed by relatives on this point as they knew that she had paid her dues to the family. Her bud began to open.
During this flurry of busy years, she found herself invited by a friend to Ireland. She slowly fell in love with this wild and wonderful land. It was so far from the intrigues and machinations of court life that she could finally breathe and find some real peace. In this lovely land she would encounter the hospitality of a most pleasant clergyman, one Patrick Delany. She was very attracted by his manner, his friendly and self-effacing desire that all should be happy in his home. He had a great and loving heart for God and she was able to talk to him freely. There was a definite lodestone between them one for the other. Yet, he was engaged to be married and she honored it. She moved back to England, and that was that for eleven more years.
Mary began to tire of her aristocratic butterfly life. She needed an income and a settled place to place her roots. She began to apply without success for a lady in waiting job. She was at a crossroads. She had remained a bud that had not fully blown. “Her life at this time” Molly Peacock observes, “resembled a kind of permanent waiting room, with all the attendant boredom and anxiety a waiting room breeds”. She was forty-three.
Enter on cue Reverend Patrick Delany, newly widowed and longing to see her again. All those years he had remembered and loved her. He had been a dutiful and loving husband to his first wife. Now he was free. He went to Mary straight away and proposed a life together. He said the tenderest things she had ever heard from any man:
I have long been persuaded that perfect friendship is nowhere to be found but in marriage..I know that it is late in life to think of us engaging anew in that state…I am old, and I appear older than I am; but thank God I am still in health. As you have seen the vanities of the world to satiety, I allowed myself to indulge a hope that you would accept a retirement at this time of life with a man who knows your worth, and honors you as much as he is capable of honoring anything mortal.
Here was a man who had loved her not for fortune, not for the bloom of her youth, not for any political alliance. He loved who she was. Simply that. He was the sun her bud had been waiting for. She left British aristocracy behind and traveled to her beloved Ireland. She and Patrick were wed and remained so for 25 years. In that time, he encouraged her artwork. They drank tea in the garden, they grew flowers together, he showed her how to feed robins out of her hand. She painted the walls of his chapel at his request. She helped him in his work as a Pastor. She loved listening to his sermons. He loved making her laugh and watching her draw. She took up her magical scissors at odd moments and began to create her paper silhouettes once again under his loving eye. She grew into the Mary she was meant to be because he was enchanted by her and wanted to see what that Mary would become. He was waiting simply to see her fully opened in happiness. She did not disappoint. She bloomed. At the end of those blissful twenty-five years, Patrick became sick and eventually died. She was left utterly bereft. All her old anxieties and depressions of girlhood surfaced like bitter winds that almost blighted her bloom.
Mary was taken in by her long-time friend the Duchess of Portland, a woman “generous, and considerate and eccentric and a widow herself. She no doubt understood the vigor unique to mourning…she understood that her interests were providing her friend a feeling of safety, as very, very slowly, Mary woke from her stupor of grief…”
Then one day it happened. One afternoon Mary noticed “how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital connection between paper and petal, she lifted her familiar pair of filigree-handled scissors…with the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper. Then she snipped out another. And another, and another, with the trance like efficiency of repetition – commencing the most remarkable work of her life”. She then took all her cut paper petals and carefully arranged them in the exact likeness of the live geranium in the vase before her. She then pasted them carefully on a black painted background. Her friend the Duchess strolled in to see what her friend was up to and was astounded to find that she could not tell the paper flower from the real one, so accurate was it. This was the first of over 1000 flowers she was to create in the next ten years. She simply said to a friend, “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers”. Indeed she had. With every snip of her scissors, every miniscule paper stamen, petal, and leaf she cut out, her joy and confidence grew. On the black background of her sorrow and grief she had placed the image of her life in full bloom. She and her paper flowers were to always to be a witness that the late blossoms are sometimes the most beautiful.
She was always to remember Patrick’s enchantment with her, his tender and admiring love. It was a light to her in all the dark places of her mind. Peacock expresses it so beautifully when she says, “By the time she was widowed at sixty-eight, she had been loved candidly and clear-sightedly, not in a blur of romance but in clarity of observation, with true acceptance. It was not a sweeping love but a lucid love, or, as Dean Delany would write in a poem to her, twelve whole years after their wedding, ‘my pride, my life, my bliss, my care!”
How apt that I read about Mary Delany on my back porch near my Zinneas. She and they became quite intimately connected in my mind. I too am at an age where I wonder about my art, my great contribution. Is it over? Am I too old for such dreams, even though I still have them? I think of my husband, my grown children, my dear friend who encouraged me to write after a thirty-year hiatus. They don’t think it’s over. They are still waiting for more blossoms to appear. They are still watching and reading over my shoulder as I write at my computer with a genuine interest. They are still asking questions, wondering what I am thinking. In this loving atmosphere, how can I not find another late but beautiful bloom or two within myself? I know Mary would certainly agree with that cheeky smile of hers and an encouraging flourish of her magical scissors.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.