The Fragrant, Flowery Touch Of a Magnanimous Magnolia

When my husband and I bought our century-old Victorian house a few years back, I remember describing it to my mother over the phone. Specifically, I remember explaining with childlike excitement, "And there's an old magnolia tree in the backyard as tall as the house. Apparently, every spring the whole tree explodes with flowers."

My mother, the voice of experience, warned, "Those trees are messy and a lot of work."

Now it's a few years and many garbage bags full of magnolia petals later. I concede that the evidence suggests that what she said was true. But it is not the whole story. Every spring this tree brings me at least one glorious moment of indescribable beauty: at least one moment when that day's fallen petals are raked and bagged, the weather is warm enough, the breeze is gentle, and the company is good. Because of the changeableness of the spring weather, these moments cannot be planned. But this year I was blessed with two.

The first came on a Monday, a few weeks ago, when a friend of mine came to dinner. We ate early with my husband. After dinner, since it was warm enough and the light outside was still good, my friend and I retired to the yard. We settled on a bench under the magnolia tree, and there we sat and talked. The breeze was unseasonably warm and humid. My friend said, "The breeze is wonderful - it feels like velvet on my skin." I never would have thought to use such poetic words to describe the wind, but I admit their accuracy.

The tone for the evening had been set, and we admired everything around us: the garden just beginning to turn green, a trellised climbing rose bush of an old variety, and an arbor over which wisteria blossoms will drape in warmer days. These growing things are the inheritance left to me by past generations of gardeners here. I appreciate them all.

But none compares to the glory of that old magnolia tree.

As we sat and talked in the final fading moments of the evening's light, a delicate perfume from the tree surrounded us. A light pink canopy of petals sheltered us. Then the tree tenderly released some petals to that velvet breeze. They wafted down with gentleness. Some landed in the yard. Some landed in our hair. We giggled as we picked the petals out, feeling like little girls. The magnolia tree was playing a game with us, a game designed to teach us not to take ourselves too seriously.

We talked a little more, then suddenly realized with a twinge of sadness that darkness had descended and the air had quickly turned cold. Night was here. In a scene reminiscent of childhood and having played outside too late, I reluctantly admitted that we had to go in. My friend got her purse, and then we hugged goodbye.

The second special moment came later that week. On Friday morning, a local architect came by to discuss the feasibility of adding a bathroom to our house. Since there are no floor plans and the house was built in stages, the addition of plumbing is a peculiar puzzle. We hiked from basement to attic. I gave him a thorough tour. As he was leaving, I impulsively asked him if he wanted to see the yard briefly. This would complete his tour, I explained. He resisted, somewhat, citing appointments scheduled and clients expecting him. But I took one quick look up at the grandeur of the magnolia tree. It was still in full flower and wet with dew as the sun streamed into the garden.

I now believe that there are a few moments in every life when the normal importance we place on practicality should be dispensed with speedily, even if one is with someone she doesn't know very well. I could tell this was just such a moment. "This will really be worth it," I offered knowingly. "Trust me. Ten seconds on the bench under this magnolia tree when it's in full bloom will change the way you see everything the rest of the day, and maybe from this point on."

He reluctantly agreed. Still holding his notes from our discussion, he walked over to the bench with his back to the garden, begrudgingly. He turned around to sit, placating me. But when, now on the bench, he lifted up his head and saw the way the sun played on the garden as the magnolia petals wafted from above, his face was struck with awe.

"Wow," he said. "Wow," he repeated. Transfixed by the scene and captivated by the secret beauty of the moment, he admitted, "I see what you mean."

We sat on the bench together, silently. There is an awe-inspiring grace expressed through growing things that speaks uniquely to the heart. This old magnolia tree has its way. If I bring a person to its bench, I have found that it finds exactly the right things to say.

The magnolia tree's pink canopy has been dropping petal by petal over the last 10 days. Today it is raining, and the tree's branches are mostly bare, with green leaves just starting to peek out. The final petals blanket our yard with pink, awaiting one last raking on the next dry day.

Now that the fragrance and the special moments are gone, I am almost tempted to agree that these trees are messy and a lot of work. But truthfully, all that raking just doesn't seem like much to me. That is, not compared with witnessing those cherished moments when the old magnolia tree finds someone's open heart and speaks.

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