The Root of the Matter

Every year, soon after the last frost of spring, my mother would plant flowers the colors of the American flag in a circle around our towering flag pole in the backyard.

Every year, soon after the last frost of spring, my mother would plant flowers the colors of the American flag in a circle around our towering flag pole in the backyard. The red salvia, blue ageratum, and white petunias would be bursting with patriotism come Father’s Day, and by the Fourth of July, they would be spilling over the flower bed’s edge.

Traditions. Year after year, they create a sense of connectedness; they’re something cherished to hold onto in a sea of constant change. If my mother had ever thought to skip that gardening ritual, I’d truly be lost!

As it became more difficult for my parents to keep up with the landscaping and flower planting, my brother or I would help out. To assist with planting one year, I offered to bring my son, Will, who was about 7 at the time. We took our orders from Grandma, who sent us off to her favorite nursery to purchase the three flag-colored flower varieties. We planted probably six or seven trays of flowers (Will loved popping the mini plant forms out of their plastic molds), gave them a good soak under the watchful eye of my father, and thought we’d call it a day. But then my dad said, “Do you want another job?” We didn’t answer, but he continued. “See if you can dig out the thistle that have been taking off like crazy.” So Will and I traipsed around the property, looking for the prickly nemesis. “There’s a big one near the faucet in the front,” my father offered as he wiped sweat from his brow. Will skipped off, happy for a challenge. (I told Will I’d pay him a dollar if he spotted the thistle and helped me get it out.)

We found the sharp-thorned growth and I pulled on some gloves, got some garden tools, cut back what I could, and then yanked away, moving pieces of ornamental driftwood and decorative lava stones out of the way. (My dad had spent hours getting that driftwood in just the right position.)

As my aching fingers bore through inches of ground cover, plastic landscape sheets, and dirt to get to the root of that beefy thistle, I thought about how amazing these things really are. Not only are their stems coated with pointy weaponry, but so are their leaves. (A note about thistle: This plant isn’t always considered a nuisance; in fact, it’s the adored floral emblem of Scotland and is quite beautiful when its purple-pink head is in bloom and it appears in a swath rather than as one stubborn anomaly.) “Grandma told me someone fell into this thistle once,” Will told me, laughing, as I squatted to get closer to the enemy. Thistle was a new word for him, so he was pronouncing it over and over, while climbing up and down the decorative driftwood and rocks. “That would hurt, right, Mom?”

An unusually hot May day wasn’t making the job any easier, but I was determined — a veritable madwoman fervently trying to get the soldier-like plant out of the ground. I wanted the landscape to be as pristine as it was when I was 12, playing croquet barefoot amid the cool grass and practicing my golf swing until lightning bugs appeared. I needed it to be that very same verdant scene. This particular thistle was pointing toward a window where my 12-year-old self would stand on Saturday mornings with rag and Windex in hand, cleaning off smudges and dirt while my mom, on the other side of the glass, fervently gestured to where I’d missed a spot. (She always seemed so determined to get out every smudge — clean windows were a huge deal to her, and they are to me, now, too.)

In the end, I had to leave some of the tough thistle’s root in the soil — so, technically, the thistle partly won — but my parents looked on happily as I held up the destroyed heap, looking victorious, while Will’s eyes shined as he thought of the dollar he had just earned.

“You want to take it back to your yard and plant it?” my father joked.

Driving home, I wondered if by the time that thistle showed its head again, Mom and Dad would still be moseying around the large home, pointing things out that needed attention like another thistle. The hints of wear and tear — weeds that crept up between the bricks on the front walkway and back patio, chipped fieldstone on the front step, the tipped-over alarm sign to keep burglars out — saddened and distressed me, because keeping a home immaculately maintained was their thing.

But as time marched on, I stopped worrying and wholeheartedly embraced the aging, slightly-deteriorating state of things, simply because that treasured childhood house of mine was still there and so were they. And every spring, my parents were still intent on wanting to plant a red, white, and blue flower bed.

P.S. — Detroit Home magazine is holding its first-ever Best of Detroit Home poll. Now’s the time to vote at (voting ends Aug. 1) for your favorite gardener, landscaper, house painter, brick specialist, and others who make your house a home. Winners will be announced in the December issue.