Marion Whitley: Wisteria


Marion Whitley



My 4-year-old vocabulary may have lacked tree names such as oak, cedar and pine, but I knew "wisteria." It wasn't a tree with a trunk, but a vine with roots way bigger than both my legs, but the vines kept on growing, taking over the limbs of that otherwise nameless tree in our front yard. On they went, dangling purple blossoms over anybody sitting below in those scratchy yard chairs.


My grandfather had built them, painted them too, but they still scratched any part of your body not wearing something. They were for grown men who'd been plowing since sun up, not for girl children who, though wearing the essentials for modesty, had to squirm and twist to avoid splinters if she slid too fast, too far, into the steep-angled seat that forced her legs straight out in front.


So this girl child sat on the bulging grey roots that fed the vines engulfing the wisteria tree. Leaning forward I'd listen to my mother and grandmother talking and shelling peas. I bet they'd never sat on roots. Fine with me. Mine gave me an unquestioned position in the family grouping, and if a neighbor came by to borrow a saw, nobody would say, "Honey, be sweet and let Mr. Soandso have your roots."



One day my mother's sister came up, unexpected, in the mail car from town. After dinner she was helping my mother and Granny shell peas under the wisteria tree. She looked and sounded like company. She lived in town in "a room and board" and worked for a lawyer across the street from the courthouse. Her navy blue dress, sprinkled with ecru flowers, was so thin you could see right through it to a navy blue slip!


So there we were under the wisteria tree, shelling and talking and once in a while laughing about something they thought was funny. Mother and Granny thumb-scooshed the peas from their hulls into bowls in their laps, then dropped the hulls onto a newspaper on the ground between them. My aunt leaned forward in her chair and crossed her legs to show off her navy blue shoes that matched her dress and slip. She giggled at her clumsy shelling. Said it seemed like "my fingers are more accustomed to typing up legal papers than to shelling peas."


My mother bit her lip and gave my aunt a look that was new to me. A handful of pea hulls hit the newspaper with a plop and it got real quiet... the kind of quiet you hear between zigzag lightening and the thunder you know is coming. She was staring at the ground at my aunt's feet, and through tight, tight lips she whispered to me, "Honey, go get the hoe!" I jumped up, obedient but stunned. Hit her sister with a hoe?!


I glanced at my aunt. Her hands were up in a scare position, her mouth open in a silent scream. She was staring down to where a lazy black snake had draped itself, pretty as you please, over a shiny, show-off navy blue shoe.


I flew to the garden, grabbed the hoe and reversed my flight. My mother, running to meet me, grabbed it and raced to the edge of the cotton field that bordered the yard where the sensible snake had seen fit to slither for cover. She flailed at cotton stalks, severing leaves and blossoms, with a power and wildness I didn't know existed in my mother's being. My aunt was standing up in her chair, dress up over her knees screaming, "Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!"


My mother retu111ed from the attack on the snake and cotton field, her face streaming sweat and tears. "It's gone, Sister, dead and gone! Now, get down out of that chair!" in a voice I didn't recognize. Granny patted my head and said we better go see about our peas. Said some just might have gotten spilled.


Pretty soon my mother went with her sister to meet the mail car back to town while I waited under the wisteria tree. I found some peas Granny and I had missed and laid them on the arm of a chair, then climbed onto the other arm so I could see her coming back. "Well," she said, taking my hand as I jumped down, "won't she have a story to tell her 'room and board' friends tonight! And lets us go wash off these peas and get ready for supper."






Not mentioned in a recent description of my garden is the privilege of having a wisteria vine just outside my first floor windows. It's securely established there atop and along the property line fence topped with coils of barbed wire. You can't see the unsightly wire, thanks to a resident who'd once occupied the apartment just over mine. She'd been a survivor of the Holocaust, and the sight of the coiled wire atop the fence just outside her bedroom window had been a cruel reminder of her past. She'd appealed to George, a young man on the maintenance staff, for a possible way to disguise it.


In days he'd planted a wisteria vine in that corner of the garden and, as wisteria will, it sent its tendrils and leaves to climb the fence, overtaking every coil of the offending wire. Unlike our vine back home, this one doesn't blossom, but gives me the leafy privacy I so enjoy.


NOTE: I have the above from George himself who, now, sporting the handsomest white beard on New York's Eastside, manages "the font" of this building with efficiency dignity and grace. Each spring we keep an eye out for wisteria's greening leaves.





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