Crape Myrtle in My Mother’s Backyard
Until I moved to the Midwest as an adult, I had no idea how much the California landscape colored, quite literally, my view of the world. When there’s always something beautiful in bloom, it’s easy to forget that you live in the USA’s exception, not the rule, of climate. Until I wrote Making Peace with Paradise: An Autobiography of a California Girl, and my editor L.L. Barkat pointed it out, I had no idea I relied on these flowers to subdue my anxiety and ignite my imagination while creating my own safer world.
One of my backyard companions was a crape myrtle tree planted near a two-story playhouse that served as my creative writing “studio.” As the tree grew, the profuse pink blossoms eventually reached the window, where I would gaze into their papery petals while thinking up snappy dialogue for the cats, koalas, and rabbits that populated my plays.
Crape myrtles (sometimes spelled crepe–think the texture of those petals) or Lagerstroemia, are deciduous trees and shrubs that thrive in warm climates like southern California. Native to Asia, these plants now fill US Zones 7-10 with their white, pink, red, and purple flowers in the summer; bright foliage in fall; and peeling, marbled bark in the winter. My mother continues to nurture two of these beauties in her backyard today, but the tree haven’t always had it easy. Here is my poetic letter to one of them:
To the Crepe Myrtle in My Mother’s Backyard
You can’t be angry when you plant it! my mother needled
when my father lugged your one-foot infant self in a plastic pot
to the sunniest spot in the yard. Good soil, water, and light:
these were the givens in my mother’s kingdom of gazanias,
bougainvillea, and fuschias, passion flowers spiraling the trellises.
She even sliced spotted bananas into her staghorn ferns,
big, leafy babies in baskets flapping their arms for potassium.
But you were the special child, $40 in 1982, so much money
for something that does nothing! my father bellowed, the one
who spent hundreds on speakers that etched invisible fissures
in the collectable plates on the wall. You’re going to kill it!
she cried. If it thinks you don’t want it, it will quietly die
and burden us no longer. He dropped you roughly in the hole,
beating the dirt down around your roots as I watched
from my bedroom window. My mother checked you daily
for wilted leaves that never came. It lived but will never forget
what it heard, she said, and I wondered if you would continue
to absorb those fights photosynthesislike, funneling the poisons
of betrayals and slammed doors down to your trembling roots.
I visit you now, tilting my head beneath twenty feet
of watermelon flowers. You let go of that anger decades ago
when your first flush of petals scattered the October ground.
You leafed out, budded, bloomed again. When my parents finally
divorced, you were just coming into your own, bark aflame.
Maybe the quiet did you some good. I know it helped me
stretch out my arms and welcome the rain, make room
for the monarchs and birds who had been circling to land.
Your Turn: Crape Myrtle or Other Flower Poetry Prompt
Now you try. Write an epistolary (letter) poem addressed to a flower from your childhood. The plant could have belonged to you, a grandparent, a neighbor, a friend. What did this flower “see” and “hear?” Why is it important to you and your memories?
“Runyan is as kind as she is funny, and she excels at self-deprecating humor, the best kind.”
—Glynn Young, author and reviewer