Thanks for visiting. This site will no longer be updated.

Please visit my new site.

You can find new writing, new photos at


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Forty Daughters

I was reading a wonderful story the other day by a favorite storyteller of the blogosphere, TheElementary. It was a wistful tale of her relationship with a tree named Mr. Willow.
It reminded me of the days of my forty daughters. Or that was what I called them then.


...But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

For a period of a few years, I could grow two things very well: roses and weeds. (The weeds actually grew themselves, but it was the roses that took some learning.)

In my olden days (the Starter Marriage years) I had a great need to plant something, to take care of that thing and watch it grow and be successful and bloom. Since the growing blooming wasn't happening inside my home or my life or my relationship, it took place outside, in the rocky square of hard dirt that was my backyard.

For some reason, I really took to roses. Or they took to me. I had no idea what I was doing when I bought my first rose bush, a miniature yellow peach rose that I planted in an old wine barrel and kept outside my patio door. I bought it for its vibrant happy nature, a personality that threw itself out from its perky little blossoms so that I had no choice but to take it home with me.

Of course, I half expected the little bush to die within a few months, but this plant not only grew, it fairly exploded with leaves and flowers. And such began my infatuation with the genus Rosa, within the family rosaceae.


Roses are actually easier to grow than most people realize. They seem to have a reputation of being difficult to raise, when the truth is that there is a rose bush that will grow in almost any climate.

If you learn to speak rose, you will be treated like an equal. When you learn their little habits and preferences: where to prune, how to seal a wound, how to remove suckers, how to deal with aphids, rust and mildew, how deep to dig their holes, then you will have the truest friends ever.

When tended with true attention and care, roses will return your love with armfuls of flowers.


Since I had no real inclination to be inside the gloom of my little tract home, I used to escape to the nursery to wander the roses and look for my next friends to take into the sisterhood of my backyard, the jumbled patch of weeds and blossoms.

Over time, I carefully embezzled money from the grocery shopping to fund my gardening schemes, and at the height of my rosedom, I grew over 40 bushes. I had every color and size, but my predilection was for English country roses, yellow and peach roses, and miniatures. I loved the tiny delicateness and Old World sensibility of Cecile Brunner and the overwhelming fragrance and happiness (and historical significance) of the Peace rose.

I tended my roses in all seasons, and was sometimes rewarded with two or even three sets of blooms in a year. I missed my friends terribly when winter came and I could only look outside to their bare branches, checking often for the little swellings where the new growth would start to emerge, signalling that Spring was on its way.


And then one day it was time for me to leave that life and make an attempt for a truer and happier existence. I did not take much with me, because mostly everything I had I did not want. The china and crystal and photo albums stayed behind.

And so did my beloved friends. My forty daughters. There was no way to take them with me, and that broke my heart because I knew they would not survive without me.

I was sad for their little flower spirits (and my own) and hoped that they would forgive me for leaving them.


Is it possible for a flower to be a friend? For a leafy being to be a relation? I think it is. When I see a glorious rose bush today, I often smile and think of my little family in the height of their beauty. They still bloom in my heart, my roses.

For those of you who love nature, plants and invisible friends, please do learn more about naturalist and 20th century enigma Opal Whitely. And for those of you who live in Oregon, you might visit her childhood town of Cottage Grove.


Sallycat July 8, 2008 at 7:39 PM  

What a beautiful post tangobaby.
When my marriage ended and I left the house we had shared for some many years, it was the garden I left behind that I missed beyond words.
I still find it painful to look at the photographs of that place bursting with the life of hundreds of plants, every one placed there and tended by me.
I put my soul into that space and the plants within it. And I guess that a piece of me will always be with those plants in that garden: my spirit still feels the rain, the sun, the winds of England as long as those plants continue to grow.
'My forty daughters' is a beautiful description.

Red Shoes July 8, 2008 at 9:34 PM  

It is eminently, eminently possible for leafy growing things to be friends and relations. I have a deep and personal relationship with certain trees I know...

One thing I loved about living in the South Bay was the roses. Especially at night. They seem to glow. And I can just imagine how they would love you, and strive for you.

Liz July 8, 2008 at 9:46 PM  

completely and totally possible (if not mandatory) that the leafy, flowery beings can be friends and family... such a beautiful post

Psyche July 8, 2008 at 9:50 PM  

Everything Sally wrote above is also true of me! It was so hard to leave our house, and it was even harder to leave the garden, my baby, that I'd put so much work and creativity into. He moved out long before I did, and it broke my heart to watch our little garden come into its own over the months in between when he wasn't there to see it; the snow lying on the Japanese lantern, the weeping cherry tree that we chose together blossoming spectacularly for the first time. I texted him a photo every time a new glory appeared. I'm lucky that I'm still very close to my ex. We actually dug up the cherry tree in the end and replanted it at his parents' place, so that we could still visit it whenever we wanted to.

After the house was sold, I drove by it for the first time and saw that the new residents had put up a new hanging basket above the front door. That was the first thing we'd done when we moved in. I completely fell apart - I had to pull over so I could sob without crashing. Then I had to call my ex because I knew he was the only person who would understand.

I love the Peace rose. When I was a kid my parents gave me and my sister a small piece of garden each. We went to the nursery, and we each chose a rosebush to plant. She chose Peace. I chose Blue Moon. Roses are just magical.

Anonymous July 8, 2008 at 11:41 PM  

The first place I bought in LA was a duplex, and it had a scraggly little rosebush in the front. The gardener (because I turn everything I touch into mulch) wanted to pull it out and plant a new one. But I loved that little Charlie Brown rosebush. It offered up the most stunning, cabbage-sized blossoms, with ivory petals edged in carmine which smelled of heaven. When the little rosebush bloomed, nobody notices she was scraggly.

Mary-Laure July 9, 2008 at 6:41 AM  

Gorgeous roses. I can almost smell them...

(PS: I'm adding you to my blogroll because I so love your blog)

studio wellspring July 9, 2008 at 9:14 AM  

oh this makes my heart burst ~ just missing all the lovely gardens i've had in the past. hopefully in my new place i can start growing lovelies again. and you'll always be invited to let my flowers get the pleasure of meeting you.

tangobaby July 9, 2008 at 12:32 PM  

Hello Sallycat,

Of all people, I knew you would understand me exactly in this post. I remember crying about my lost roses, and thinking about how I could dig some of them up and take them with me...that's how important they were to me and how much joy I got from them.

I think now that my life is happier that I wouldn't need the roses as much, so now it's easier to think of them and not feel badly.

Hi Red Shoes,

Yes, the warm South Bay air does wonders for roses, especially at night. It warms them up so smelling them after a hot day is a joy.

I spent a lot of time outside with these plants, and I seemed to know every leaf and branch they had.

Hi Liz,

Thank you so much for your comment. I think my prize now is being so close to Golden Gate Park, where I can see every kind of plant and flower. It's the biggest back yard I've ever had!

Hi Psyche,

It's comforting to know that you and Sallycat get this, although I'm sad for the losses we've all experienced. It's good to know that you were able to enjoy your garden a bit longer, and even share it with your ex. Mine was never interested in my garden which was why I knew the roses would never last without me.

My mom occassionally drives past "my old house" and tells me that all of the flowers and plants are gone.

The smell of the Peace rose is intoxicating on a warm day.

Hi Johanna,

It's amazing how a scraggly little rose can surprise you with a little care and attention. I love that you've named yours a Charlie Brown rose--I can picture it perfectly!

Hi Mary-Laure,

You always have such lovely flowers to share with us, so I'm extra glad you enjoy these (this photo was taken at the communal garden at Fort Mason.)

And thank you for adding me to your blogroll! I'm so happy!
(You live on mine under the heading Daydreamers and Nightdreamers.)

Hi Ms. Wellspring,

When that day comes, I'll be happy to give you as much rosebush advice and help as I can! So don't move far away!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan July 9, 2008 at 12:50 PM  

"If you learn to speak rose, you will be treated like an equal."
I'm going to read this post again- it's worthy of being printed and framed, I do say!
This is so beautiful. Not to mention that I adore The Little Prince- it's the first book that Spouse gave to me and is such a profound meditation on what it means to be a grown up- and your referencing it was simply the icing on the cake.
The title is amazing- reminding me of old Irish legends and mystical musings from ancient times.
And yes, yes it is possible for plants and flowers to be your friends. I don't see why not. We know so little about so much, as they say, that a good deal is beyond our understanding.
I'm sure they forgave you, after all you gave them much love and care.
And thank you for the mention. I'm duly touched :)

christina July 9, 2008 at 3:19 PM  

I was about 7 when my childhood was replaced with the reality that my mother wouldn't be able to care for me anymore.

My grandmothers garden was the only place I felt I belonged. The flowers whispered, I would be okay and vegetables assured me I would be nourished.

I am almost sure this garden is where my prayers began to be answered.

No matter how old I get that garden will live inside of me.

What a beautiful post tangobaby.

I am crying happy tears, really I am :)

Anonymous July 9, 2008 at 6:39 PM  

A heartbreakingly beautiful post, tangobaby. Your description of how you communed with your rose daughters speaks volumes about your capacity to nurture even under dire circumstances. Thank you for sharing your beautiful tale.

My Castle in Spain July 10, 2008 at 3:13 AM  

I love your post, dear...it is very inspiring to me. I still have difficulty to speak the "roses" language but after reading your post, I feel more confident..


julochka July 10, 2008 at 9:31 AM  

you almost make me start to (at little tiny bit) like roses. generally, i find them mean and sharp and pokey. and although the flowers are beautiful, they're otherwise a pretty plant...but i digress.

what i really loved about this post was the phrase "starter marriage." i had one of those too. the real one i'm in now is going much better, but i learned a lot from that starter. :-)

tangobaby July 10, 2008 at 11:21 AM  

Hi TheElementary,

I like how you and I think in similar ways. The title reminded me of something I would have read in a fairy-tale book long ago, my favorite one being "East O'The Sun and West O'The Moon."

When I read your posts, you give me so many aha's and ideas...this was just one of them and I'm sure as long as you keep writing, I'll keep thinking of ways you inspire me.

The Little Prince is such a wonderful book. I remember crying while I read it, but always being glad such a book was there for me to read.

Hi christina,

Oh, your comment just about broke my heart. I seem to be coming up with a lot of things that brings back the little girl Christina and even though I can imagine what she must have looked like, I know what a special girl she was. Look at the beautiful lady she has become.

I hope there is a garden in your life today that will give you many happy hours and leafy friends.

Hi dutchbaby,

I know your talent and love of flowers and growing things inspires you all the time. When I wrote this post, I enjoyed remembering my flowers more than I was sad to miss them, so that's a very good thing.

Hi Lala (or should I say, My Castle in Spain?)

I know I learned a lot from my local garden center about roses, and took a class or two that they offered. Between asking an expert (if you can find one) and going online and looking in books, I'm sure you can find the questions to the answers you might need.

Roses don't need too much attention but the more you give them, the greater your rewards!


Hi julochka,

I think if you had a thicker and longer pair of gloves, your relationship to your rosebushes might get a little easier. They don't mean to stab you.

Also, pruning inside the bushes will make a huge difference in your access to grooming and caring for the bushes, and how often you get stabbed.

I'm glad the "starter marriage" prepared you for the real thing...for myself, I think I'm better off being a girlfriend. But as you know, the lesson learned either way is so valuable!


paris parfait July 10, 2008 at 12:59 PM  

"They still bloom in my heart, these roses." Dear Tangobaby, I have heard this story, but you write it so beautifully, it's as though I'm learning about it for the first time. I think you had to leave the roses behind so that you could bloom - and now you are the most gorgeous rose of all! xoxox

karey m. July 10, 2008 at 3:00 PM  

is it possible for a flower to be a friend? yes. and i named my three for three of my favorite blooms.

i like you more and more each essay you write. {no, i wouldn't dare call these posts. never.}

this one breaks my heart and fills it all at once. how, i wonder...

tangobaby July 10, 2008 at 4:47 PM  

Hi paris parfait,

Thank you...and wow. I am going to try to remember to be a rose more often (the flowery part, not the thorny part).

I think you were right about me leaving the roses behind. The Me you know now would not exist if I had stayed for them.


Hi karey,

I did not know that about the girlies. Now I will read their names with extra love.

I guess it's that common thread that makes us all tear up, nod and smile when we read something that rings true. Same reason why I read your blog, too.


Anonymous July 25, 2008 at 8:06 PM  

another wonderful journe into the heart of you julie. and the responses you have here are priceless. so much passion and heartache goes into our good green earth. oh yes i do relate. i have not had to leave my avalon but i do think about it sometimes that one day i will become and old woman digging in my earth the best i can. i tell myself that it will be alright. a tangled and overgrown heaven on earth. i must get over my need of neatness in the garden. i am always being reminded that i am not in charge :) i had so many roses for the first years i gardened here. did you know that portland is the City Of Roses? and that we have Rose Princesses and a Rose Court every year? and a Rose Parade each june come rain or shine :) mostly rain ;)

Anonymous July 25, 2008 at 8:07 PM  

p.s. i love the name of your story and the personification of roses as your children. forty beautiful girls!