The earth was cracked and troubled in Washington, D.C. If only you’d been listening, you would have decoded the garbled whisperings of Auntie Kay’s rapid decline, a sampaguita wilting, just like your bleeding hearts in summer, hot as morning mouth. Instead, you obsessed over perennials, especially your bleeding hearts. And, you stupidly pinned your success on them. Now their decline signaled a mocking failure.
Formerly a burned out parking lot, your skinny 15×45 patch of manufactured grass served as an urban backyard. Belying appearances, this defiled earth hid scars of the past that now threatened to slice up your hands. Your gardening gloves mostly shielded you from the harmful objects—glass, rusty metal, bullet casings, and ground-up concrete. Undaunted, you imagined Eden could be realized in one growing season under your coaxing, a remarkable, almost impossible, feat for a veteran gardener. Unluckily, you were an amateur. Unluckily, there was a drought that year. Unluckily, it was Auntie Kay’s final summer.
On the surface it was the bleeding hearts that filled you with a pitiful, throat-catching anxiety. Running parallel, deeper, viciously circling in your gut, was the once unflappable Auntie Kay now wasting away in Chicago. Be honest. Pull back the curtain: that was the throat-catching anxiety.
In chapter one, you were born in Manila, Philippines, in the late ‘60s. Cloaked in the stylish ventilation-friendly 1960s tent-dress, Auntie Kay was power, earning her title and preeminence in your memory because she was there in your earliest childhood recollections. She had been born a robustly scented sampaguita—national flower of the Philippines—growing so pregnant with buds that it brings insult to its peers. Auntie Kay was this ubiquitous flower, the proverbial stage-hogging prima donna. You recall the street peddlers weaving their way through Manila traffic selling sampaguita garlands and leis, a recognized Filipino tradition. With a scent so intoxicating, they are the jasmine of the Middle East. It’s been years since you’ve been in a room full of sampaguitas, but you can smell them still today.
The time was ripe. Bruised. Decayed. Auntie Kay had disavowed her hardier sampaguita self and succumbed to a flagging bleeding heart: irreversible diabetes and heart disease devastated her body. And in your D.C. garden, the signature rosy pink hearts were replaced by sickly, withering yellow. Chastened, you turned to the Internet. The answer was, in fact, dormancy, plain and simple. It was already time and it wasn’t your fault. Nature was also having her way with Auntie Kay. You couldn’t do anything about it.
Forty years ago as young, idealistic twenty-somethings, your mother and father started missionary boot camp on the island of Marinduque under the watchful eye of the older and more experienced Kay and her husband. Before settling in Manila together, the couples rolled up their sleeves, working side-by-side. As couples, they walked the plank together, enduring the sometimes nail-biting adventures related to time and place. Missionary work in Gasan, Marinduque, guaranteed adventure.
The year-round humid air of the Philippines punctuated by the violent typhoon season intensified a bedeviling gardener scourge: snails. Even as a kid, you knew the huge population of snails sliming around the garden guaranteed destruction. By happy chance your Filipino housekeeper Ate Dorie was proficient in gardening, and from her you learned that leaving a bucket of saltwater overnight garnered dozens of drowned snails by morning, ridding a garden of the snails’ deadly goo.
In the muggy fog of Washington, D.C, you were moving in slow motion. You’d rejected the past, rife with shared human-to-human experience that produces the best kind of learning and relational bonding. You clung mostly to a book as your gardening guide. Problem-solving may have looked like a simple bucket of saltwater, but it was predicated on trust in another person, not a book. However helpful, Home Landscaping, Mid-Atlantic Region lacked the intimacy of human experience and sometimes misled the gullible gardener that you were.
The book failed you. It couldn’t replace what could only come from a living, breathing friend by your side.
You hadn’t known your flesh-and-blood relatives very well during your Filipino childhood: they too were essentially book-learned. Slides and old black and white photos built a family tree story in your mind that was at its best conceptual. On the mission field, it was common to use “aunt” and “uncle” for fellow missionaries, since so many kids didn’t know their own. Knowledge of natural-born relatives was lacking the blood-sweat-tears depth of experience of Auntie Kay and your surrogate family.
When you lived in the Philippines, your D.C. garden would have appeared wildly foreign and new. But now everything has changed. You appreciate that the contents of your garden in the Philippines, set in the tropical climate, offered an exemplar of the exotic. Bougainvillea, gumamela, and orchids thrive in the Philippines. Of course, sampaguita was everywhere. You had all of these blossoms—and more—in your small yard. You think Auntie Kay did. Probably everyone did—these were practically wildflowers in the region, so effortlessly did they grow.
Your families went on vacations to the forsaken beach in Dagupan, providing a wealth of experiences that further knitted you together. This oceanfront was primitive, without a resort or tourist in sight. Fishermen easing their boats into the water for a day of work were the only humans with whom you shared the beach. Until you saw the beaches of Florida, you thought the Dagupan landscape was nothing but normal. How wrong you were to think this experience wasn’t amazingly singular. It pierces and pulses yet today.
Both families squeezed into a cozy two-bedroom bamboo-slatted hut with basic plumbing and no electricity. Since your location was fairly isolated from the nearest village, each car arrived armed with ample provisions including Styrofoam coolers and boxes of nonperishable food. Making runs for ice to preserve your food stash was not just part of the experience, but was also part of the fun. It was a dream not to have warm running water because it gave you the excuse not to shower. You kids just rinsed off the salt and sand outside your rental hut using the old-fashioned utility water pump. You skipped the chore of brushing your hair, the color and texture of which was completely altered by the time you left for home.
Kerosene lamps enabled you to play Monopoly into a night bursting with stars. Conveniently, Auntie Kay and her husband had a cute son who good-naturedly played with you and your three sisters. Record-breaking rounds of Monopoly ran the entire duration of your vacation. Lessons of private property and entrepreneurship were learned. Exhaustion from the sun and ocean served to lull everyone to bed, with the crashing waves reaching through open windows to serenade. You’d ricochet out of bed with the sun and distant crowing of roosters, ready to repeat the exact schedule of activities as the day before.
Some of you hauled sleeping bags down to the beach, where the shoreline met the South China Sea. You slept under the blazing stars at least once each vacation. Early morning walks on the beach were terrifying. Hundreds of tiny crabs raced around, eagerly exploring the new day. Since you abandoned your shoes the minute after arriving at the beach, your toes were vulnerable to all those giddy crabs, careless and dangerous in their frenetic meanderings. With every step, the crabs scattered only to circle back, stubbornly marshaling for a toe-attack.
Auntie Kay would hold your hand and start singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and you tried to be brave like her. Your voices belted out verse after verse, your small voice blending with her big one: “Christ, the royal Master / Leads against the foe.”
Beyond a doubt, this sandy ground was a real battlefield with a real foe. But this foe was a formidable army of crabs—did that count? “At the sign of triumph / Satan’s host doth flee.” The final clause was a little nerve-wracking. Satan’s crabs weren’t getting the message that your triumphal steps were their cue to permanently retreat. You’d leave for home exhausted by the sun that had tanned you to a gorgeous burnished bronze. Only occasionally had adult hands slathered sunscreen on you.
In your D.C. garden, you came to admire the raw fundamental of perennials, the business of stamina. It wasn’t just about staying alive, but emerging stronger and greater after beating back winter. Perhaps this resurrection each spring was reassuring proof that modern-day miracles do happen.
Yet one of the most basic goals as a missionary was simply staying alive to help those who didn’t. The dead in Marinduque would be left unembalmed. As it was, there weren’t enough pesos to feed the living, hungry mouths of the typically large families on the island. The families would proudly insist on one ritual to honor their dead: they would wait for an official church funeral service led by an official church leader before burying their loved one.
The Angel-of-Death cholera visited often, once snatching a young parishioner, twelve-year-old Lolita. In abject poverty, her family needed help. Auntie Kay and your mom transported her lifeless, girlish body in the back of their pickup truck for a proper church funeral service. Rummaging through the missionary barrel, your mom found a pink polyester dress intended for you—caskets in the Philippines were generally left open. You heard that your dress fit Lolita nicely.
This was but one of many instances of the women missionary folk helping the dead to their final resting place. On another occasion word spread of a family who lived in a remote area of the island: a falling coconut had killed one of their men. Auntie Kay and your mom were unequivocally required. Three days had passed and the family was desperately waiting for the arrival of any church leadership to conduct the service, to properly bury their dead. Enter the missionary women, who forged a river and climbed the muddy embankment in their can-do pickup to the hilltop cemetery. In the tropical climate, an unembalmed body in an open casket was a tough presence, but the ladies conducted the service, complete with a musical number—a duet in Tagalog.
Though the women had forged a lasting relationship around funerals, your families had often bonded over the memory-rich process of making ice cream. The slim metal cylinder holding the rich ingredients would be put in a bucket surrounded by ice, generously sprinkled with rock salt. This was how ice cream was made—the old-fashioned way—when your families gathered. The handle was attached to a paddle to churn the ingredients. It was tough to turn, and one kid was assigned to squat atop the bucket to keep it from jumping around. Another would turn the crank. You kids rotated jobs, but if there was any grumbling dad would get involved.
“Attitude check!” he’d yell.
“Praise the Lord!” you girls boomed in chorus. A Bible verse may have followed. The grumbling would stop—at least externally.
Internally, you grew to quarrel with the notion that rote memorization had anything to do with faith. All those years later, you stood with your watering hose, equally questioning the effectiveness of watering your perennials in a drought. As if such a simplistic approach would suffice. To flourish, something much more profound and outside your control was needed: rainfall. Doubt swirled inside you. The rubber watering hose you waved was as at odds with lasting growth as glib answers were to life’s deepest questions.
Outward signs of religious piety didn’t convince you of a faithful heart. Because, Auntie Kay wasn’t the definition of religious—she never used verses or clichés as comebacks. Because, she didn’t thump her Bible at you. Because, she didn’t hurl sound bites. Because, she didn’t know christianese. She was blunt and even irreverent when the occasion required. Her faith, however, was beyond question, flowing from deep within. An unquenchable sampaguita fragrance apparent to everyone in her reach.
An epiphany, as puzzling as it was sensible, flashed instantaneously, because you finally deconstructed a complex piece of your childhood in order to face reassembly. As a typhoon hitting the Philippines, the rain fell. The ground was soft and ready for growth.
Annuals were too fake for your taste. They had an artificial quality—a burst of flamboyance and then gone forever. Their blossoms were a little too scripted. But their alternative—the perennial—tested all of what was supposed to be substantive and eternal. Staring at your dying bleeding hearts, you were thinking of Auntie Kay. Even you were confusing the two. Bewildered, yes, but not enough to resort to annuals.
Curly hair was the rage when you were growing up, and Auntie Kay would give you and your older sister Ogilvie home perms. You rode your bikes in her driveway while your hair was processing, attempting to steer clear of her moody Dalmatian Sissy and the elephant-ear banana tree leaves. Auntie Kay had fixed you up so that your heads were neatly sporting dozens upon dozens of narrow rows of curlers, each section of hair receiving a squirt of the magic product before being tasseled up inside thin paper and secured with the long but very narrow plastic utilitarian curler. She was the picture of long-suffering. Your hair was stick straight so that mostly it’s impossible to tell from old pictures that Auntie Kay had spent hours transforming your ‘do.
Grasping for hope in any form, you found some comfort for your struggling garden on page seventy of your gardening book. It offered pearls of wisdom. Instead of bending the will of stick-straight hair, it counseled coping with reality. These solutions amounted to superhero plants able to adjust to needy soil. Drought and extreme heat were also non-issues for these hardy plants. In fact, they thrived in the merciless muggy climate. Accepting straight hair was just the beginning of learning to let go of unrealistic expectations and move on.
Auntie Kay taught you silly songs that you sang as you madly looped around on bikes as your curls processed—helmet-less and shoe-less, of course. Songs with words that are still stuck in your brain and that you’ve sung to your children, each time with a picture of Auntie Kay flashing: “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch / And all I do is cry all daaaayyy / Boohoooo / The air’s so bad it takes my breath away / Pee-yew!”.
She claimed to be singing a ‘40s tune by Arthur Godfrey. You didn’t believe it. The song is all her! Auntie Kay’s face puckered up into a convincing cry and her eyes watered. She had an arresting alto voice. Her rendition of the old gospel spiritual “Kumbaya” was a haunting prayer. Her repertoire of material was as diverse as it was mesmerizing.
When Christmas rolled around, each and every year dad directed Handel’s Messiah with his combined choirs, and Auntie Kay was his established alto soloist. As children of the conductor, you watched wide-eyed from your front row seats in the chapel auditorium and instinctively hummed along with the familiar melody of Auntie Kay’s number, “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?”.
At the conclusion of the performance, all four of you girls leaped to your feet like popcorn and belted the “Hallelujah Chorus” along with the rest of the audience. You and your three sisters would inevitably be dressed in the current flavor of missionary barrel dresses or in matching dresses your mom had sewn. You often resembled the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music when they were clothed in uniform fashion, courtesy of Maria’s use of old curtains to provide the necessary fabric.
You inherited your mother’s resourceful gene, though it held little appetite for sewing outfits out of cast-off fabric. Now fixated on your going-nowhere garden, the nemesis presently chaffing you was an area in your long narrow yard. You weren’t about to let it beat you. The sunken edge of your yard running the border of the fence that separated you from your neighbors was muddy and smelled rank. It wasn’t as foul as a decaying body, but it was offensive.
You made notes to address this with a professional at the nursery. What to plant in muddy ground? How to firm up? Absorb water? Where there was a problem there was most certainly a solution—hadn’t you worn a dress an eternity ago that resembled a Von Trapp ensemble? You should know. A bit of missionary pluck had rubbed off on you forever.
Page 188 in your gardening bible was gold. You skipped consulting the professionals. The book described Moneywort, an easy-going ground cover, low to the earth like carpet that didn’t mind sun or shade. Amazing, too, was that it required damp soil and spread one foot per year. These varied perennials were lifesavers, and this book made a green gardener dream of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, without a hitch—not counting the bleeding hearts.
You’d grown up knowing a sampaguita resilience of spirit that left you in awe. She died a fragile bleeding heart. Fragile and Auntie Kay seemed an oxymoron.
But even in earlier times as a smart and sassy sampaguita, Auntie Kay had the same human struggles familiar to any life, although you didn’t recognize the barest hint of shadow until you were much older. Sampaguitas smell so damn great that you can’t imagine anything ever being wrong. Unbeknownst to you, diabetes had governed her quality of life while you were a little girl begging for another perm. You now wish you had understood that walks on the beach for her were part of the nonnegotiable prescription for good health—not just the fun and games she made them out to be. You would have insisted on more walks. The debilitating disease had forced her to give herself insulin shots as a young woman in Marinduque. Just like any perennial, she had faced many brutal winters.
You were unaware of so much back then. Her hugs were soft and inviting, and no alarm bells sounded in your young mind as they may to a child in America today who hears messages of weight and obesity, sugary snacks and soda.
On the contrary, in the Philippines chubby women were admired. As brides, they signaled wealth and prosperity because those who didn’t have much were skinny, and therefore, pitied. To be able to eat more than one needed was a sign of luxury; jolly equaled desirable. This message hadn’t sunk in. From your youth, you were defined instinctively by activity, unstoppable movement in the form of tree-climbing, biking, skateboarding and pick-up soccer games with the local kids (barefoot, of course). It was an impossibility that you’d ever qualify as a chubby affluent bride.
Diabetes had propelled Auntie Kay to get familiar with a popular medical manual of the day. It provided complete guidance for any health issue, a boon to an island where the hospital was for the desperate or dying. As a young woman, she took what she read, added it to her too-personal knowledge of health, and with your younger mom at her side, went from nipa hut to nipa hut, where sickness and death called. She followed up with Lolita’s large family to offer B-12 vaccinations, hoping to stave off another cholera death. Talking to her as an adult and hearing stories secondhand was a reminder that every life has suffering. She saw it and responded. She lived it every day.
Instead of delivering care, Auntie Kay became the subject of every medical intervention possible. You learned not to expect good news. Everything in her was slowly shutting down, a body not only crippled by diabetes but also by the addition of heart disease. And she couldn’t sleep. She had always had an advanced case of insomnia, but to you and your sisters, it looked like a ton of fun. Visiting her seemed like a nonstop slumber party—popcorn and movies into the middle of the night. She seemed crazy, that good kind of eccentric to which children are drawn. But the body can’t handle sleeplessness.
When you last visited her in Chicago—coinciding with your bleeding hearts playing out their drama—she had some good moments in spite of her illness, notably when you all sat down to watch an old Victor Borge special late one night. She even laughed her old, low, rocking laugh. Your nine-year-old daughter begged to go along to meet the much-lauded Auntie Kay and you agreed. Sitting hours at a time hand-sewing a pillow, her youthful presence brought the sun out during that tough visit.
Never a twig, Auntie Kay had grown so heavy she couldn’t leave her recliner in the living room without help. Snaking tubes restricted her, circling her and making the most ordinary of motions difficult. The tubes also made hugging a challenge. Eating became a trying and painful chore. Her transformation was a refresher course on decay being part of life. From Marinduque to hospice, sampaguita to bleeding heart. The world had turned upside-down.
Today, you tend your garden differently. You won’t be duped by the optimism dancing across the page of your beautiful picture-rich gardening book. You won’t struggle to reverse dormancy because that’s what defines perennials. You will never wrestle with withering bleeding hearts again. And you understand better now that bleeding heart’s gorgeous dangling heart flowers wouldn’t be possible at all without yielding to nature’s cycle of dormancy that often comes too soon. Even if all the conditions are right, the flash of life is often simply too short. Not even a truckload of manure to enrich the soil or soft rains would ultimately change anything.
Instead, you regard each brilliant dangling heart as a tiny miracle, knowing it won’t always be there and that you need to be ready. Ready to be denied the enjoyment of such singular blossoms, blossoms that serve as stinging reminders that in Chicago even brilliance like Auntie Kay’s could one day, with little warning, rapidly diminish. The awe-shucks-we’ll-get-through-this missionary attitude of long ago couldn’t save her. Neither could defiantly singing the famous lines from Messiah’s “But Who May Abide The Day of His Coming?”: “Who shall stand when he appeareth? / for he is like a refiner’s fire.”
As the most ambitious of all perennials, Auntie Kay wasn’t squirming. She was like your bleeding hearts! Cycling out, wasting away—that is, but for one key exception: she was preparing for the ultimate promotion. Swapping corruptible for incorruptible, she was going down only to spring to life in another place, a better garden. Death to life in an even more mysterious and magical display than that shown by the return of perennials each spring or the transformation from abused earth to verdant beauty in your backyard. In this way she was not a reflection of the modern-day miracle of perennials, but of a miracle as old as time itself.
You once cut yourself on a shard of glass when working beneath the dirt in that sin-filled garden. You bled freely.
Originally published as “Resurrection” by Story|Houston
Kathryn Streeter was born to missionaries in the Philippines. In twenty-four years of marriage, she has lived in many great places around the world, including London, Dubai, Germany, and Washington, D.C. Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston Mamalode and The Briar Cliff Review. Her is essay is featured in the bestselling anthology, Feisty After 45: The Best Blogs From Midlife Women. A full-time wife, mother, and writer, Streeter resides in Austin, Texas. Visit her website kathrynstreeter.com and check out her Twitter @streeterkathryn.