what have you lost?

“Is there anything good about losing?  Does loss help us discover anything?  Maybe sometimes we notice or take better care of what we still have.  Momentarily.  Maybe the reason we talk about our petty losses with such energy is that there are so many inevitable larger ones that can never be redeemed or reclaimed.”

the introduction to  What Have You Lost?: poems selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Back when we were still renting someone’s old summer cabin on the lake in what had since become a consciously genteel suburb of Portland, we would come out here to our rough and rural hillside early in the morning to drag out the filthy carpets, scrape up the scarred linoleum, strip hen-and-rooster wallpaper, and repaint anything too dark and dismal for our comfort.

In the evenings we’d return to the graciousness and order of that neighborhood we had decided we would live without.  After our own quick and exhausted evening meal, we would walk around those well-ordered streets, smelling other people’s dinners, admiring their flowers for the last time. . . almost the last time . . . probably the very last time.

At one corner, these pale queenly lovelies raised their graceful heads beneath an old stand of Douglas fir.  After many evenings, on one of our very, very last mornings, I wandered up to the front door and knocked, “I have to ask you, what are those flowers?”

Oh, those! the woman said, Japanese anemone, and she told me how easily they grew.  Which was all I needed to know.

But with a quick generosity, she turned, fetched a shovel and dug up a small clump and put it in my hands.

I planted it outside my door here.  The anemones were the only thing that grew for me that first year.

And every year they slowly spread.  Each spring, I’d divide the clump and plant new colonies further along the house until they grew from one end of the house to the other, rising gracefully with the drawing in of summer: the last flowers to hold their own against the frost.

In the winters the tall anemone withered away and their background singers came into play.  A slow-growing shiny-leaved evergreen with insignificant flowers bloomed in the heart of winter: sarcocca (sweet box) poured out a powerfully sweet perfume in the darkest days of February.

What is that wonderful smell? my friends used to say when they came to the door, ducking under the dripping eave.  I missed it every time I opened the door last winter.

In the springs that I have now lost, while the anemone sent out flat, dark-green rosettes, preparing for the autumn show, there used to be myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely) springing up in lacy green fronds, lacier white umbels of anise-scented froth.  Every part of the cicely is licorice sweet  – the stems, the seeds, the leaves – you can add it to rhubarb and cut half the sugar.  It re-seeds happily but not aggressively, but I’d had some trouble finding the seed in the first place, hunting it down from descriptions in British herbals.

I’ve saved the seed.  It’s in a tiny Christmas gift bag in the dented enamel pitcher in the cool spot just inside the front door.  Probably it will grow again just fine if I can ever make a bed for it.

And I keep thumbing through the catalog that still carries sweet box.  It will be such a tiny plant at first.  And three years until it’s really worth something.

Japanese anemone I can find at the local nursery.  No problem.

Certainly all three – anemone japonica alba, sarcocca humilis, myrrhis odorata – all three are replaceable.

But it won’t be the same clump of generous anemone anymore that first blessed my bleak yard.

Only a remembrancer.


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