In what used to be known as primitive societies, I read somewhere, there is the persona of the maternal uncle. He is a merry fellow with a smile on his face and a soft spot in his heart for adoring nieces and nephews. He is often an intervener who tries to modify punishments handed down from parents. Anthropologists refer to him as the "joking uncle."
I learned I had one of these: my mother's youngest brother, Dave. He entered my life the summer I was 8.
Uncle Dave arrived from California with his new wife, Aunt Muriel. They were to stay with us in our rambling old house in Connecticut until the fall. Then they would depart, Uncle Dave to teach plant physiology at Yale.
He was a tall, rangy, rather thin man. For some reason, I immediately thought of him as "twinkly." The moment he set his suitcase down in the hall he seized me, swung me in the air, and announced that the two of us were already good friends. This, before he was even sure of my name.
If you had asked me, I'd have said that plant physiology had to do with plants, and that would have been the end of it. I'd never been much interested in gardens. True, there was a smallish one behind the house, where my mother raised herbs, Chinese vegetables, and perhaps a few flowers. But I was never drawn much to the backyard. I was drawn to the living room, where I could usually be found in an overstuffed chair, eating apples - stems, cores, and all - and lost in Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott books. So far as flowers went, I recognized two kinds: roses, and those that were not roses.
Uncle Dave brought me into the garden.
I came outdoors one morning to find him walking around the yard, his eyes to the ground, hands in pockets, whistling. I imagined that he probably knew everything there was to know about the plants in our backyard. But since it contained no roses, I was ignorant of them all. Wishing to make a friendly gesture, I leaned down and plucked a small yellow flower growing, apparently wild, in the grass.
"Uncle Dave, what's this called?"
"Well, let's see." He took it from me, placed it on his palm, pursed his lips, and studied it carefully. "What you have just picked," he said, handing it back, "is pretty common in most backyards. It's a golden pleurisy."
"Oh." I looked at it with interest, and then stared down at the grass. "Maybe there's more of them."
"Possibly, possibly," he said. "Once they get a toehold, they go hog-wild, you'll see." And he gave me one of his smiles.
Golden pleurisy. A lovely name. I tucked the flower in my pocket. I should perhaps be more open to flowers, I thought. They're somewhat beautiful, actually, and they have interesting names.
I joined Aunt Muriel and Uncle Dave at the late-morning breakfast table, where the three of us usually ate alone. They called this "second breakfast," the rest of our early-rising family having eaten and gone about their business. I reached into my pocket and laid the bedraggled blossom in the middle of the table.
"I found this in the garden," I explained to Aunt Muriel. "It's called a golden pleurisy."
She gave me a startled look. Then her lips twitched and she looked at Uncle Dave. "May I see it?" I handed it to her.
"Yes. I'm going out later. I bet I'll find a lot more of them."
"I think I'll have more toast," Uncle Dave said.
Then and there I decided to become a collector of flowers. Of flower names, to be exact. How delightful that Uncle Dave was here - and for the entire summer, at that!
Our morning excursions became an exciting daily event. I would arrive with my notebook and show Uncle Dave my list. I decided to arrange the names by flower color, and he agreed to help me with the spellings.
THERE was the beautiful blue arrowmancy, with its delicate cream center. The gladiolaria and the Denver dypstyk, which, I learned, lured insects to its interior to devour them. Each day I brought my morning findings to our late-breakfast table, and I loved the way Aunt Muriel, resting her elbows on the table, leaned her chin on her palms and listened to my recital. Sometimes I pleasurably, self-consciously, spelled out the names of the more exotic ones to her. I often felt she was learning as many new things as I was.
A garden hosts more than plants. Once awakened to this new territory, I arrived each morning to stand in the newly intricate air, perceiving as for the first time a host of creeping and flying things: insects of splendid variety and habit. There was certainly room in my notebook for a section on insect names and descriptions. The first entry was a round, stripy, wobbly sort of beetle. I called Uncle Dave over and pointed to it, opening the notebook.
"This, my dear, is a scarface willibug." How fascinating! Their names were as wonderful as flower names. And birds - what of birds? Now that my eyes were opened to the enchanted land of a garden plot, I could see several kinds of birds, many of them not robins. I nudged Uncle Dave and pointed to one perched on the lower branch of a tree. With a great splash of red on the top of its head, it looked most unusual.
"I'm not much on birds, particularly, but it happens I know that one," Uncle Dave said. "It's a scarlet pipperary."
I instantly resolved to incorporate the entire garden into my notebook. In went a third section: birds. I could hardly wait to bring this latest to Aunt Muriel's attention. The summer was half-gone by now, and for some time she and I had been sharing a secret merriment. At the table I carefully spelled out the name of the bird and, while Uncle Dave helped himself to marmalade, she gave me a wink and I gave her one back.
OUT in the garden the next day, Uncle Dave said: "Have you come across a bronze pipplethwaite yet? I noticed one yesterday afternoon, out back near the gate."
"I don't think so," I said. "Spell it."
He spelled it and, painstakingly, I wrote it down.
"Or a volatile necromancer? They should be arriving now. They show a lot of green on the neck."
I considered for a long moment. "I don't think so," I said. "Spell it."
He spelled it, and I wrote it down. By my feet I spied a golden pleurisy, leaned down, and picked it. "Here's another of those things, Uncle Dave." I laid it in his palm. "Taraxacum officinale. And you're right, they're all over the place."
"Whoops!" Uncle Dave yelled, and whirled me up in the air as he had on the day he came. "You're right! Dandelions! Now you're ready to become a botanist!"
I never became a botanist, but I still have the notebook, which my grandchildren adore. We all prefer my uncle's nomenclature to what you'll find in the proper books. For who else could lay claim to a garden where one could find, among other things, a corolitic imptail or the cosmic porringer?