I come from sturdy Alabama farming stock, from pecan orchards and peanut fields. By rights my favorite flower ought to be something straightforward and simple, something that thrives in red clay and droughtzinnias, maybe, or marigolds or black-eyed Susans. It’s true I’ve always been fond of these ordinary yard flowers, plants that drop their own seeds and come back, summer after hazy summer, without any effort on the gardener’s part. I’ve come to think of these plain blossoms, which have no real fragrance, as the floral objective correlatives of myself. But despite my appreciation for them, they aren’t the ones I love best. My favorite flower is not a sturdy State Fair zinnia. My favorite flower is a fragile, milky white, heavenly scented gardenia.
I was in high school before I encountered a gardenia bloom for the first time. It was floating in a glass bowl on my favorite teacher’s desk, and when I walked in a little early that morning, her whole classroom was filled with its scent. For a moment I forgot the chalkdust and the cinderblock walls and the frantic fervor of movement out in the hall. For a moment I stood still and breathed in that heady, perfect fragrance. It was the divine sort of scent that ought to accompany an apparition of the Virgin Mary or the opening of heaven’s gates before a loving and generous soul.
As I stood there in the doorway, lifting my nose again and again and sniffing like some sort of animal whose very life depends upon smells carried in the air, my teacher looked up from her desk and smiled. “The blooms last only a day,” she said, “so I always cut them and bring them along. I can’t bear to let the fragrance go to waste in an empty house.”
To me the scent of a gardenia is invariably a reminder of that teacher, Ann West Granberry, who taught me both British poetry and the necessity of flowers. But because I loved her, and because she was very ill during the last year she taught medying, at 37, the summer after I graduatedthe bloom of a gardenia is also a reminder of just how brief our time on earth can be.
For three years Ann Granberry was the adult I needed most besides my parents. Because she was both my teacher and an advisor to the school newspaper I edited, I spent more than two hours a day in her company. But I was not the only student who loved her, and it was never easy to find a moment for private conversation. I used to stand outside the school, in a grove of trees between the parking lot and the gym fields, and wait for her to leave the building. For a few moments in the failing light I could have her all to myself.
“Margaret, are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving?” she would joke in autumn, quoting Hopkins when she saw me standing there among the red dogwoods and the yellow maples beside the teachers’ parking lot. I always laughed, to prove I got the joke. I was 16. I never imagined the grieving would begin so soon.
In the late spring of my junior year, Mrs. Granberry discovered a lump under her left arm. By the time she returned to teach in the fall, she was gravely ill. My classmates and I knew she was dying; for her part, despite unwavering hope, Mrs. Granberry understood how poor were her odds. She talked to us honestly, in a way that adults rarely talk to teenagers, not only about love and art and deaththose abstractions that come up again and again in poetrybut also about her own feelings that dark year.
“I’m going to look a little different when I come to class tomorrow,” she told us one morning, her voice quavering, the fingers of one hand twining nervously through what had been her thick brown hair. “I had to get a wig. It’ll look odd, I’m sure, and I wanted to warn you so....” Her eyes suddenly glistened, and she didn’t go on.
There were other times when a note of fear would creep into Mrs. Granberry’s voice. She would clear her throat or wince or put her head into her hands for a moment, and we would look around at each other, terrified. It didn’t happen often, but it happened, and when it did, not one of us knew what to say. We were still kids, still felt like kids, but abruptly our roles had been reversed; suddenly it was our job to offer comfort, to pat her on the shoulder, to murmur awkwardly that everything was going to be all right. Half the time we would sit wordless at our desks and look miserably at our folded hands.
That year I spent less time doing my homework than writing Mrs. Granberry letters, night after night, trying to put into words what she meant to me, trying to give her courage to go on. I kept drafts of those letters, only a few of which I ever delivered, and reading them now is a source of both embarrassment and wonderat my juvenile philosophy, at my awkward words, at my inexpressible love. Across the years I become the girl I was, struggling to understand what as a grown woman I still can’t accept: People die no matter how much you love them.
Mrs. Granberry’s memorial service was one of my life’s surreal events. It was a glorious full-summer morning, and the church was packed. As a sign of his faith in her ultimate resurrection, her deeply religious husband had dressed himself and both their little boys entirely in white, and the organist played, to my shock, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I didn’t sing along. I stared around me at the immobile, stained-glass windows, at the sprays of bloodless, snow-white flowers whose fragrance was too weak to fill that cavernous church, and I tried to imagine what my world would be like without her in it.
Ann Granberry has been dead now half my life, but in fact my world has never lacked her presence. I spent 12 years teaching teenagers the same poems she taught me. I keep her picture on my desk. And today, my gardenia bush bloomed in its pot on the back-door steps. I caught its scent early this morning even before I saw the single creamy flower opened among the glossy green leaves. As always it seemed to me a scent fit for angels.
Suddenly, standing very still, I thought of Tennyson and a poem Ann Granberry taught me long, long ago:
Far off thou art but ever nigh;
I have thee still, and I rejoice;
I prosper, circled with thy voice;
I shall not lose thee though I die.