Jim’s Magnolia

When Chris and I first viewed the house that would become A Butler’s Manor, it was in September 2001. At that time, the back yard was mainly grass, though the rose garden under the large Sycamore Maple tree was there…we both have a very vivid memory of the owner deadheading the roses while the Realtor showed us around.

When we eventually went into contract, it took four months to close. This meant that when we finally took possession the end of January, it was the dead of winter and we really had little idea what was growing in the yard, other than those roses. But we were hard at work in the house, furnishing and decorating and creating marketing materials and recipes for our bed and breakfast, so we didn’t much pay attention until Spring. And then…surprise! On the left side of the garden, near the gate, a large Saucer Magnolia came into bloom…the variety that sets an entire tree of pale pink blossoms before it sets a single leaf. And that’s when I knew for certain that it was meant to be that we bought this place.

In the house that I grew up in, my father, Jim Burton, planted a magnolia in our front yard. It was a Grandiflora, commonly known as a Southern Magnolia, the evergreen kind with the waxy green over brown leaves and the large white flowers that grow well in warmer climates. Ours was supposedly a dwarf tree version, and Dad’s only disappointment was that it managed to stay the same size for the whole 35+ years he lived in that house. Of all the plantings in our yard, we all knew that magnolia was Dad’s favorite.
So when he passed away in early Spring 1999, Chris and I decided to plant a magnolia in our yard in his memory. We wanted to plant a saucer magnolia not only because it was a variety that grew well in the Hamptons climate, but because it flowered right around the time of year he’d died, and we liked the reminder that he’d never really left us. The problem is that such magnolias not only bloom but are best planted in early Spring, and thus are only available then. So we missed out on the planting season two years in a row, and then we were searching for a bed and breakfast and it didn’t seem like a good idea to plant a memory tree at a house we would soon sell.
Fast forward to A Butler’s Manor, April, 2002, and here, in the same relative position vis-a-vis the house that we would have planted Jim’s Magnolia, was…Jim’s Magnolia. The first tree to welcome the Spring, and by extension, I thought fancifully, welcome us and our guests as our season began.
Then in July, when we were running like mad at the height of our first summer season, a curious thing happened. Jim’s Magnolia rebloomed, just a little. Maybe a dozen flowers. And interestingly, you could only really see them from where we sat in our office. Now, magnolias of this type don’t rebloom normally. So we decided that it was just Dad checking in when we were at our most stressed, sending us a little bloom of encouragement.
This happened every summer for the next eight years.
And then something happened to the tree. Perhaps it was Hurricane Irene. But the following Spring, only about half the tree set blooms, and later leaves. We deep-fed it, removed the climbing tree hydrangea that had been using it as partial support, got the tree gurus out to check it, waited another year. No good. We had to take it out last fall. It left a literal hole in the landscape and a big figurative hole in our hearts.
So last week we planted another magnolia for Jim. It’s little, but it will grow. It’s blooming still, as I write.
I don’t expect it to send a “hang in there” message with a rebloom in the summer, but you never know…
Quote of the Day: It’s said that when we die, the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – dissolve one by one, each into the other, and finally just dissolve into space. But while we’re living, we share the energy that makes everything, from a blade of grass to an elephant, grow and live and then inevitably wear out and die. This energy, this life force, creates the whole world. –Pema Chodron

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