by Ashley Campbell
The four o’clock, a flower that blooms with the dying light of late afternoon, is a hardy species: easy to grow, hard to kill. Perhaps this is why one spring my mother planted her four o’clocks around the disintegrating porch of our double-wide, a porch so rickety my mother had once fallen through it. My family belonged to a house that seemed to accumulate trash without any sign of stopping, the corners filling with dirty T-shirts, old Wal-Mart receipts, discarded change and candy wrappers, food molding on dirty dishes scattered in the unlikeliest of places (beside the fireplace, on top of a video game console, resting against a broken vacuum cleaner). The four o’clock blossoms, bright yellow and fuchsia, seemed designed to distract us from the dangers of our home and transport us into some kind of Southern pastoral. They were part of a larger losing battle to make our home look presentable, at least on the outside, amidst crumpled Coke cans and other random debris that made it from inside to outside our home.
My mother never was much of a gardener, having killed various houseplants throughout our childhood. I remember the withering vine of philodendron hanging limply over the toilet lid and the aloe that had browned slowly in our kitchen window, the sickly twin of the one in my grandmother’s kitchen. Somehow, the four o’clocks survived my mother’s care and thrived beside our front porch. Maybe it was the extra sunlight or the welcoming Alabama clay that had helped her out. But the flowers lived.
Though I was already a teenager when my mother planted the four o’clocks, I would often stop short on the steps of the trailer to look at them, sometimes returning to feel the soft blossoms, sometimes plucking one to put behind my ear. I would gather the seeds and separate them by color, keeping them in Ziploc bags in case these perennials didn’t re-emerge the next year.
My mother had bought the seeds and a large, green plastic watering can from the local Dollar General. She had even bought a small gardening set, which included a green metal trowel and matching hand cultivator. I’m not sure she even used them, but they were essential to the idea of the project she’d set forth and so they, along with the watering can, decorated the edge of our porch nearest the four o’clocks. When she first bought them, I thought these supplies would, like her Avon kit and her knitting needles and her oil paints, become part of the general chaos of the house rather than tools for creating some kind of order in the mess.
I hadn’t seen it at the time, but I wasn’t that unlike my mother. When I went to college, I’d wanted to believe that with the right tools I could get out of Alabama, out of a life I neither understood nor wanted. I collected theories the way an artist collected brushes. I would grapple with the newfound tools, letting the splinters into my hand as a way of connecting to the brushstrokes. And I would marvel at the way the world looked different, how “Frankenstein” or “The Incredibles” looked so different from a Freudian or feminist perspective. Each set of tools made me intensely aware of the gaps, what I couldn’t see. With these theories, reading had taken a turn for me, thrilling me as I saw the connections, the power struggles, the places of resistance. I wanted so much to be able to see it all and thought it was possible to leave no theory unturned, no book unread. I stepped out of my seemingly ordinary life—the way I saw it, in which no amount of dysfunction would make it seem other than normal, what I deserved—and into a world that could continually be deconstructed, overturned.
It wasn’t long before I turned the tools to my own life, uncovering each piece of the puzzle that made up my social anxiety, my failed relationships with the boys I thought could save me or, at least, know me. I couldn’t have known then, when my mother picked up trowel and cultivator, watering can and seeds, that I would imitate her, lay out the tools, set up the design, only to watch my plans wreak havoc on the small peace they’d given me.
My grandmother had started the assault on my mother’s four o’clocks at the weekly Sunday dinner at her house when the house was filled with my aunts and cousins, eager for my grandfather’s homemade cornbread and the fresh garden vegetables that always seemed to appear at Sunday dinners. My grandmother sat in her chair, the Sunday paper spread across her knees.
“You need to clean out those flowers on your front doorstep. They’re snaky!” she said, as my mother walked in the room with her plate. Unlike my mother and me, my grandmother imagined the four o’clocks’ sprawling leaves and blossoms as the perfect hiding place for rattlesnakes and copperheads. Looking back now, I can see that a younger version of my grandmother, having spent years picking cotton, clothed in burlap and shoeless, and guarded only by collies, probably knew something of snakes hidden in the grass.
And snakes really were a threat in northern Alabama. We’d had a copperhead on the front porch and a rattlesnake in the backyard, each dispatched by the men in our family with a garden hoe or a twelve-gauge shotgun. From time to time, whenever my family caught a glimpse of a snake in the field or dead on the road, they would again remind us to watch out for snakes. “The rattlesnakes are crawling,” my grandmother would say.
My mother responded to my grandmother’s assault by creasing the sides of her mouth and saying nothing. She set down her plate, crossed her arms, and then lightly tapped her finger against her elbow. She hummed a few notes to herself, but the tune was unrecognizable to me.
“When you get out there and have to mow around them, you’ll understand,” my grandmother said when it was obvious my mother wasn’t going to respond to her first comment.
“I like them,” my mother said. Her voice was barely audible in the din of Sunday dinner. She smoothed her denim skirt and smoothed down her graying hair. She and I practiced similar rituals in these situations. Keeping our voices calm, low. Looking my grandmother in the eyes to let her know we weren’t scared, but with the head tilted slightly forward to let her know we knew she was queen—at least while we were in her house. Most important, though, was to never let her see us cry, defeated. The words “cry me a river” and her hand lifting my face to force me to look at her, still make me shiver. Later she would tell me that the reason she liked me was because I’d learn to keep my mouth shut. And she was right; I had.
“Shit,” my grandmother said, stretching the word into two syllables. Her voice carried through the kitchen and the poolroom, a den-like room where the kids ate and named for the pool table that had once occupied the space. It was where we generally hid out on Sunday afternoons, unless we were called.
My mother retreated into kitchen to place her empty plate by the sink.
My sisters just sat there picking over cornbread and pinto beans, knowing better than to get involved in the dispute. With my grandmother’s gilded Ten Commandments plaque and faded still-life print hanging overhead, my dad would just shovel his ketchup-slathered macaroni and cheese into his mouth and keep quiet. He would not dispute his mother.
“Just let it roll off your back,” he’d tell my mother and me when we later complained at home. It was his response to everything my grandmother said or did, no matter how offensive or intrusive. He would sometimes add, “And then, go do what you want. You’re going to do what you want anyway.”
This kind of silence my father suggested was the same kind that would later rest between me and my divorce, a similar creasing of the lips, a similar downward cast of the eyes as words of opposition formed around me, as my husband’s eyes shone with mirth at the silliest line possible, Why aren’t you in the kitchen? A line spoken by his best friend, a line that would have been impossible to laugh at had I not still believed in my husband. A line I would let roll down my back many times before I finally spoke out. In the midst of this silence when I set out to save the remnants of our marriage, I’d set out the tools: a cheesy book engineered by well-meaning Evangelicals to subdue a wife and entice a husband, a well-calculated list of all our problems, and a phone number for a marriage therapist. I had thought if the tools were there, I could follow through. I believed that, like my mother, I could distract from the devastation so obvious to everyone else.
The four o’clocks were not the only dispute my mother and grandmother had. They would sometimes argue over me, sometimes jokingly, sometimes with ire.
“You threw her in. You know you did,” my grandmother would sometimes say, referring to rosebushes that grew just off her mother’s porch that had belonged to her parents’ house, which she would eventually decide to tear down, leaving the roses growing in a row by themselves away from any house.
“I did not,” my mother would say earnestly, like we believed she’d actually thrown me in the rosebushes. Her mouth would turn down slightly at the edges as though she was trying to keep from smiling.
“I saw you do it. She was standing on the porch one minute, and the next you’d thrown her in.” My grandmother would then bring her arm down heavily on her overstuffed recliner for effect. Framed as she was against the big picture window in her living room, we could believe she really had seen everything, would see everything.
“I was trying to pull her out,” my mother said. The embarrassment of having to defend herself against what seemed a ridiculous accusation crept into her voice.
“No, you threw her in.” My grandmother would set her jaw, and I could see the slight twinkle of what at the time had seemed humor. I now recognize it as triumph—the same look following me as my marriage disintegrated and my grandmother kept insisting even after it was all over that she’d tried to stop it, that I’d just been too stubborn to see.
I would sometimes join in this little banter about the rosebushes, always joining my grandmother’s side.
“Yeah, you threw me in the rosebushes, Mom. You just didn’t care about me.” I would sometimes give my mother a playful push on the shoulder at this point.
“I did, too,” my mother would say, slightly wounded. She would hug her arms around herself and lift her head a little as though our accusations couldn’t touch her.
I can’t remember falling into the rosebushes. My knowledge of the story comes only from the voices of my grandmother and my mother. I can see it though, imagine my golden, board-straight hair collapsing around my face as I land among the blossoms and the thorns, shrieking the way only a toddler can, my hands flailing as my mother lunges for me. And then my grandmother behind her, saying caustically something like “if you can’t do it any better than that, let me do it,” a phrase she’d likely turn into a joke at Sunday dinner. It seems the kind of thing my grandmother would do.
In the arguments that followed, my grandmother would end the argument by saying, “Well with your kind of care, I think I might be better off without it.”
My grandmother would then pull me into her lap, even when I got older, and I would smile, feeling like I was a prize my grandmother had won. I thought about how I was the favorite, how she wanted me more than my sisters or cousins, often taking me to town and showering me with new coats and shoes, occasionally even jewelry.
While I basked in this affection, my mother would retreat to the kitchen. If I had cared to turn to her, I might have seen the hurt that probably stole across her face when my grandmother “won” the rosebush argument, when my choice was so obvious.
Weeks passed, and my mother watered her four o’clocks daily. It was a hot summer with little rain. Drought often cooked through even the most humid Alabama summers. My mother worked the day shift at a local factory, and so she sometimes got home when my grandmother, who worked the night shift, was mowing. One day, still wearing her white smock and name tag from work, my mother stepped out of the car to see my grandmother mowing over those four o’clocks. It was summer, so I was home. And I saw the flowers go down.
And I saw my mother’s face, the two tears crawling down her face. She went into the house and said nothing, seeming to do as my father had said and “letting it roll off her back.” As she passed me on the porch, I whispered, “I’m sorry.” I don’t know if she heard me. Later I would hug her, and she would say, “I just wanted something of my own.”
The next Sunday, my mother still went to Sunday dinner, the incident not breaking the habit of eighteen years. I suspect she didn’t want my grandmother to think she’d gotten to her. It was something I understood, not wanting my grandmother to think she’d won, not giving into the tears when her words were meant to cut you down to size.
“You like what I did to the front of your house?” my grandmother said. You could hear the swing in tone as she reveled in the last part of the question.
My mother, standing on the threshold that separated the kitchen from the living room, said nothing.
“I had to clean it out. It was getting too snaky.” My grandmother’s words weren’t defensive. They were more the words of a young mother explaining to a three-year-old child the necessity of looking both ways before crossing the street.
My mother said nothing and turned back to the kitchen to fix her plate.
“You’d have copperheads hiding in there in no time if you left it like that.” No one was sure whom my grandmother was really talking to. She didn’t sound even a little bit sorry. Just like she knew she was right.
“You want snakes on your front porch? Grow your damn flowers then.” We all knew she didn’t mean it. I retreated to the poolroom, carrying my plate with me.
“Don’t listen to her,” I told my mother, repeating my dad’s sentiment.
When my mother decided to leave, my grandmother said, “I know you’re angry at me for killing your flowers.”
“I’m not angry,” my mother said.
“Shit,” she said, stretching the word into two syllables. With that, my mother left.
Unfortunately for my grandmother, four o’clocks could grow from either tubers or seeds, and getting rid of them would not be as simple as mowing them down. They dropped seeds in dozens, and she had neglected to pull the flowers up by the roots.
I laughed when new sprouts peeked out of the ground, when the shortened stalks still managed to bud. When my mother saw them, the smile spread across her face. I knew she was glad that the four o’clocks themselves were standing up for her, when she didn’t feel she could. She had to pick her battles with my grandmother, and the battle over the four o’clocks wasn’t one that she needed to win.
After the initial reappearance of the four o’clocks, my grandmother continued to mow them down every time she mowed our yard. Each time, the four o’clocks refused to disappear completely, and weeks later they would again be thriving.
I wish it could end there with my grandmother in an endless battle with the four o’clocks, but eventually my grandmother realized sheer willpower and persistence were not going to work for her this time as it had with other gargantuan tasks, as in the case of a massive tree stump she’d managed to move when several much younger men hadn’t be able to, or when she’d managed to put out a fire in the field with only her John Deere mower and the meager help of my sisters and my cousins beating the edge of the fire with dampened blue jeans. And even though it was really evolutionary adaptations that were triumphing over my grandmother’s desires, my grandmother saw the four o’clocks’ refusal to die as a personal affront from my mother. And I’m sure she probably caught the mischief lurking in my mother’s smiles at Sunday dinners when neither my mother nor my grandmother would mention the four o’clocks.
One morning when my grandmother didn’t have to work, she came down to my mother’s house wearing her usual work gear, a T-shirt and jeans and a floppy hat to keep off the sun. She had taken my sister with her, and they got on their knees and started pulling up the four o’clocks. By the time my mother woke up, the flowers had been thrown into my grandmother’s utility cart that attached to the back of her John Deere mower. The flowers would be taken to the brush pile and burned with the rest of the debris from my grandmother’s efforts to keep her land cleaned up.
I remember the wind sweeping my mother’s graying hair into her face as her cheeks reddened. Again she said nothing and retreated into the house.
As I followed my mother into the house, I heard my grandmother turn to my sister and say, “If she had any sense, she’d know better than to put snaky flowers in front of the house.”
Our houses had been separated by a mere hundred or so yards and a tiny country road. At some point in my teenage years, I moved across this space to my grandmother’s house, occupying a room my aunt had in her childhood. And it would have seemed to anyone on the outside that my grandmother had won my teenage years, but the closing of that proximity had lead me to see what I hadn’t been able to from across the road, the cruelty that came with approval.
The flowers never came back, not really. A couple of shoots would appear from time to time, but after my grandmother’s last assault, weeds overtook the area. I never used the seeds I’d collected.
One image still stands out to me—that of my mother laboring over some summer squash she’d planted in the backyard. The plants were as hardy as four o’clocks, and they thrived in our yard. She was likely wearing her bright pink T-shirt and black, water-resistant capris or some other such ensemble for dealing with Alabama’s humid heat. I could see her salt-and-pepper hair shining in the sun, the green watering can hovering benevolently over her newest project. It was clear that this was a project that she’d finish, if only for the aroma of fried squash in an iron skillet.
I wonder sometimes if she planted them in the backyard so my grandmother couldn’t see them from her big picture window, or maybe because they were vegetables and since my grandmother grew vegetables too, she knew she could win.
Ashley Campbell is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She grew up in Ala. and is currently a transplant to the icy North.