One Place Understood
There wasn’t much to do in Jackson, Mississippi in the years between the wars. Nights were quiet and the heady concoction of gardenia and jasmine that had steeped in the afternoon heat now hung, almost liquid, in the humid air. Spared the robotic roar of air-conditioners, the houses that lined Pinehurst Street shared snippets of conversation, music, and laughter through their opened windows. As the fragrant night darkened to velvet, a crowd began to gather at No. 1119, a gracious Tudor with an arched front door. Summoned by an advertisement in the local paper, these lucky souls were there to witness, and to celebrate, a lovely event. A night flower was about to bloom.
The night-blooming cereus is a strange plant; a rather ugly one, if I am completely honest. A member of the cactus family, it has but one attribute worth noting, but that one attribute is a doozy. Once a year and only in the dead of night, it produces a spectacular flower - snow white, spidery, magnificent. Such a sight to behold, it prompted a group of its fans to form a club in Jackson, Mississippi in the 30’s. The Night Blooming Cereus Club took its name from the popular song of the time… “Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it ‘cereus’, life’s too mysterious”….. and the wonderful writer, Eudora Welty, was a founding member. Whenever one of the club members had a night-blooming cereus about to do what its name suggests, they would take out an ad to announce it and members would flock to their home for a grand, all-night party. As I write this, I am looking at one of the ancestors of Miss Welty’s night-blooming cereus, something that tickles me no end.
It was the creation of my new back garden that led me to visit Mississippi. Having read that there was to be a plant sale featuring plants from the garden of one of my favourite authors, how could I stay home? It was my first visit to Miss Welty’s home and stepping inside felt both revelatory and divinely familiar.
There is a scent in the air of all well-mannered Southern houses, a melange of lemons, garden roses and old paper. This perfume met me as soon as I walked through the door, so evocative that I almost looked around for my great-aunt. The house has been saved as it was when Eudora lived there. It’s almost as though she’s just stepped out to go to the store. Books, oh my soul, books on every available surface - a significant sight that assuaged a boat load of housekeeper’s guilt for me. Miss Welty’s writing desk sits by the large double window in her bedroom. From here she could hear the music from the choral classes of Belhaven College across the street as it wafted through that open window. I could almost see her - could almost hear the song.
Her famous garden was so recognizable I felt as though I’d walked back into my own childhood. Here were the old roses, the violets, the buckeye trees, fragrant and unbowed in the face of a promised early morning thunderstorm. Here were the camellias and the irises, serenely feminine in their spring finery. It was an unheard of luxury to gather up some of Eudora’s plants to include in my garden. I see them now as I write, soaking up the morning sun, and I like to think a little of her remarkable spirit is now residing amongst my flowers.
Eudora Welty once wrote,
“One place understood helps us understand all places better”.
I understood her place very well.
I’ll let you know when my night-blooming cereus is ready to bloom.
We’ll have a party.
Sidenote: ……In true Southern fashion, there was cake and lemonade being served on the side porch by ladies of the Welty Foundation and I sat to talk with them for a long while. One told me of the days when her son was small and she would push his carriage past Miss Welty’s house on walks every afternoon. Framed in that upstairs window like a painting, Eudora could be clearly heard, typing away. She would look out as the lady passed by, spy the baby and, waving her hand out the window, she’d call out loudly…”Sweeeeet Baby” … and continue writing.
And To Find Out More.....
A wonderful tour through the Welty garden.
I adore this book.
A slender volume that introduces one to Eudora.
I adore that cover photo, her high-school graduation shot.
She was sixteen.
Can you imagine looking that self-aware and intelligent at sixteen?!
A delightful collection of gardening letters,
something I can never get enough of.