Gone to Feed the Petunias with Millay

Last week I stumbled upon a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay that brought my dad to mind. That’s not hard to do. He died four years ago and something or other still reminds me of him every day. Many days it’s as simple as looking in the bathroom mirror and seeing his reflection. I look a lot like him — same green eyes, same increasingly slouchy eyelids, same line between the brows.

But on that day it was Millay’s poem, Dirge Without Music, which she wrote in 1928, that brought dad back. A dirge is a lament for the dead. This would have been a nice poem to recite at his memorial service.

First, the poem. Then, I’ll follow it with thoughts about dad.

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts
in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of
mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,— but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter,
the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and
curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses
in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Dad’s been feeding the roses for four springs now. He would have liked being remembered in this way, whether I approve or not, because he loved flowers. He loved planting them, tending them, watching them grow and sharing their beauty with others.

He lived in a condo the last several years of his life and before that, an apartment. He had no yard to plant in, but he had a park right outside his building. One that stretched for a mile or more along the riverbank. He was often seen exercising there in the mornings, watching the local children play in the fountain or picking up trash. The city parks department heard from him regularly about overflowing garbage bins or weeds. Dad had high standards and expected others to meet them.

The spring before he died, he got permission to fill one of the park’s empty planting beds with flowers. He posted this on Facebook:

dads petunia

Then this two days later:

dad flower post 2

Then this update a month later:

dads flower post 3

And then his last post, two days before he died:

dads last flower post

Then he was gone. Gone to feed the roses — or petunias in this case.

Dad knew fragrant. He knew elegant and curled.

I know, too.

I’m writing this outside on a beautiful spring day. Not far from where I sit is the Mexican Orange bush I planted, draped in white blooms. A fuchsia-colored Azalea next to it competes for attention. Its been weeks since the cherry tree has dropped its pink snow. Our neighbor’s dogwood over the fence has replaced its pink show. But I am not resigned.

I miss him — the light in his eyes, the tender, the kind. The intelligent, the witty, the brave. He left too soon. He was only 64 and I do not approve.

Yes, Dad loved flowers. He might approve —or maybe not. I remember him asking me once why mothers got all the flowers and dads never did. Feeling guilty that I’d never thought of that, I had a bouquet of flowers delivered that Father’s Day.

“So how do you like the flowers, dad? They got delivered, right?” I asked him later on the phone.

“Yeah, they were nice,” dad said. “But stinky. They smelled so much I had to take them outside and leave them on the balcony. They just stunk the place up.”

Fragrant. I know.

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