I first met Mr. Best (name changed) over ten years ago and it wasn’t easy to win him over. My new dental hygiene job was a bit intimidating since I was replacing a highly congenial Brenda, who was beloved to her hundreds of patients. Elmer was a thin-faced gentleman nearing eighty at the time. His Texas drawl was evident in the few short required sentences we exchanged. He seemed a man of few words and I wasn’t sure if I could ever elicit a smile from the man. Was this his way of being or was he particularly impatient with my ways? Was I doing or saying something wrong to him? Could I ever gain his trust?
I would see Elmer every six months and he gradually warmed up to conversation as I queried him for tidbits of his life. I learned he had been in the military and served abroad just after WWII. He actually loved telling stories of danger and miracles. He almost glowed as he spoke of his younger days driving racy sports cars across long highways in Texas. We gradually became friends and he would sometimes mention his zinnias. Well, more than sometimes. He was very proud of them.
This was curious to me, considering I was stuck in the rut of petunias and marigolds for annuals in my own yard. Here in Wyoming, summer comes late and autumn frosts come early. We take what color we can for our short growing season so I did what seemed to work for borders and pots tucked among perennials. For me it was the go-to six packs from the nursery. (No, petunias don’t spontaneously grow from dropped seeds here.)
I’m not sure how many times Mr. Best had mentioned growing zinnias before I realized he was totally serious about his flowers. He wasn’t talking about just a plant or two, or even a few pots. He grew lots of zinnias. My coworker, Karen, across the hall cleaned his wife’s teeth while he was in my chair. One hot summer day, she could hear his rather monotone drawling voice going on about zinnias again.
After the Wests left, Karen and I decided we needed to see those zinnias. We both enjoy walking so decided to have a lunchtime adventure. I called my friend who lived near the Best’s neighborhood and asked if she would like to join us for a walk. Jen was in too, so Karen and I drove to her house where we parked and all started our trek. In Wyoming we have very dry heat, which I hear is less awful than humid heat. So on that hot sweaty lunch hour we wandered around until we found Big Horn street.
We didn’t need to see the house numbers to know we were in the right place. The brown brick home set into a little hillside. Beside the garage there was a concrete retaining wall with a chain-link fence on top. The whole area behind the fence had tall bright zinnias waving in our ever-constant Casper breeze (we try to avoid the “W” word … W I N D, but we are known for LOTS of it here in Central Wyoming.)
Ok, back to the zinnias. They were bordering the drive way, most of them thigh-high. The variety of colors was stunning. As my grandmother would have said, “they were a vision of loveliness.” Concrete steps flanked by zinnias rose to a landing, and made a turn up to the house, still with zinnias lining a garden between the sidewalk and garage. We three ladies were stumbling over our words as we tried to describe what we were seeing, and all admitted, that Mr. Best hadn’t been overstating his horticultural victory in the dry rocky soil of Casper. We climbed the many stairs, knocked on the door, and said hi, complimented them on his beautiful achievement, then headed back to the car and returned to the office for our afternoon patients. I hope we weren’t too stinky and sweaty.
Six months later in the dead of winter, the Best’s came to their dental appointments. Elmer was carrying a large cranberry juice bottle stuffed with zinnia seeds. A gift for me. He had mentioned before that he harvested them every fall, and explained just how he would rake the ground and spread them out thickly in the spring and keep them wet until they took off. Then he would thin them some, which is hard to think about losing even one possible blossom, but he swore that was best. Of course in Wyoming we still have to water everything several times a week to keep if from drying up and blowing away, so there is ongoing maintenance for sure.
As I held the garner of seeds, probably equal to hundreds of seed packets, it was like being given gold. Not only had he been growing zinnias, but a friendship had blossomed too. When spring came each year, I would get out my stash of zinnia seeds and put a few here and a few there in my pots to add color and variety to the other annuals.
In mid-March 2020 the world seemed to change, even in our most sparsely populated state of Wyoming. The dental office was closed down for some as yet unknown amount of time and we all glued ourselves to the news, trying to figure out what a new reality might mean for us. As the weeks marched on, I kept myself busy at home in many fulfilling ways. When weather allowed, I was outside trimming grapes, fruit trees and bushes, clearing out perennial beds, and watching for signs of life to return.
I was ecstatic when apples, pears, and plums bloomed, unaware or uncaring of a pandemic. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths defied the contagious gloom and doom of covid-19 and irises rose as strong sentinels in time for aromatic Memorial Day bouquets, invasive strawberries tumbling at their feet.
As much as watched pots never boil, I was peeking daily at ground where I’d planted new perennials the summer before, hoping they would come up again. Some actually flourished and those hardy hibiscus had me fooled since they were so late that I’d given them up for dead – but hooray, they finally grew too! There still was life within a pandemic!
When frost was past, I masked up to go buy six-packs of petunias and marigolds but sliced my budget since we didn’t know what the future of my job or my husband’s job would be in such uncertainty. By this time, the half-full cranberry juice bottle of zinnia seeds seemed a perfect way to fill in pots since I had fewer annuals to plant. I was ready with a plan! A drawback was the patience it would take to wait extra weeks to see blooms. Even so, I was determined to defy the dreary pall 2020 was attempting to lay over us and celebrate nature and color, and my own life in our special backyard. I wasn’t going to be a prisoner, I would nurture my flowers like never before! They tickle the senses with unique scents, velvety petals, and beautiful ballets of colorful dance. Their incredible diversity teaches the magic and synergy of co-mingling. Flowers shout happiness and joy and I was going to join them.
I didn’t dilly dally around with a few seeds here and a few there. I went whole-hog around our large yard from the smallest to the biggest pots and then to whiskey barrels, over a dozen of them. I slathered the dirt with zinnia seed, deciding against typical artful arrangements of ornamental grasses, marigolds of varying heights and colors, bordered by cascading petunias. This would be the year of the zinnias. And contrary to Mr. Best’s practice of thinning and spacing, I wanted THICK!
Our adorable little grandson was just a year old and walking around the yard with me when he visited. He was delighted to “help” water the zinnias with Moonie as I’m called. So over the few months of summer, this new little angel in our family and I would water zinnias together, watching the miracle of life and nature transform seeds the size of a fingernail clipping, to growing standards of brilliance that towered over our little guy. Wylder’s tiny vocabulary at first consisted of truck, jeep, Mama, Dada, Papa, water, and Moonie, but also bloomed including his rendition of flower which is a real mouthful for a toddler.
The hand-watering of zinnias brought unexpected blessings to me. I became more of a noticer. With such tall zinnias in extra-large pots, the blossoms were nearly at my eye level. The vibrancy of zinnia nuances in pinks, oranges, tangerines, fuchsias, and yellows was stunning. I discovered teeny tiny waxy micro flowers growing on the tips of the stamen filaments (would those be the anthers?). A scientist I’m not, but a soulful relisher of beauty and nature I am. As cliché’ as it sounds, my childlike sense of wonder and awe grew exponentially as I shared the summer of 2020 with the zinnias of Mr. Best.
Our summer was one of the hottest and driest on record, going weeks in the high 90’s and months with no rain. I’m sure the waning of the zinnias was sooner than a milder year would have been, but I was so filled with gratitude that I didn’t dead-head until the last petal was brown. And yes, I was harvesting those zinnia seeds and filling that 64 ounce cranberry juice bottle back up.
Mr. Best is older now, and has pruned back his yard work regime as happens when the body is weary. He concreted in the border along the driveway where zinnias once flourished. The back lot is mowed down, and his boundless zinnias are but a happy memory over on Big Horn Street.
Miraculously, life begets life and the zinnias will live on over here on Pennsylvania Avenue and at Karen’s home in the country, Jen’s home over on Forest Drive, and the yards and gardens of all the friends I’ve been sharing baggies of seeds with. The zinnias of 2020, the zinnias of generations to come.
Job 12:9-10 Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.
P.S. On the evening of September 7th, Labor Day, a devastating early heavy snow began falling. By morning we had nearly a foot and our biggest shade tree had split to the ground from the weight on fully leafed branches. Half of the Russian Olive lay on the ground, and the tree was lost forever. Our flowers were buried and frozen – forgotten, as it took two exhausting weeks to cut and haul away our broken trees and bushes.