Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
Extending a crepe myrtle branch
The last crepe myrtle branch drops as I turn into the driveway. Through the windshield I lock eyes with a guy guiltily grasping loppers and hold him fixed in my glare. Getting out, I pick my way around the limbs until I square off with the destruction. A chill wind rushes and blusters.
Three crepe myrtles create an informal, but necessary, border between my driveway and the neighbors’ yard. “Those are my trees,” I tell the stunned landscaper, clearly as surprised to see me as I am to see him. “Why are you cutting them?”
“That’s how they’re supposed to be pruned,” he defends himself.
Though I live within the city limits now, two blocks west of Main, I grew up on a farm. We raised horses and goats and cows and ducks and chickens and pigs and cats and dogs and geese and a donkey named Delilah. Our long gravel driveway unraveled itself from the road, up the hill between the fences. When it arrived at our country house, it split around a cluster of unkempt crepe myrtle trees. Many childhood hours were wiled away peeling the papery bark, climbing on spindly trunks and squeezing buds between my fingers to prematurely burst them into bloom.
I don’t want my crepe myrtles pruned correctly, or at all. “Who told you to do this?”
Sheepishly clutching his sheers and backing into the neighbors’ yard, he croaks, “Miss Estelle.”
When my husband and I and our four children, ages 1, 3, 5 and 7 at the time, moved in next door to Miss Estelle and her husband, Mr. Henry, we changed the face of the picturesque street. On move-in day, our boys bounded into their yard, stripped naked and ran in their sprinklers. Until we settled here, residents on Lee Street hadn’t seen a real live child in a front yard in 20 years. They’ve yet to recover from the shock.
Our circa 1908 brick house rumbles with the chaos of family life, threatening to bring down the neighborhood with it. Miss Estelle gives us the stink-eye any time a stray dog or child wanders down the sidewalk.
In a place where the garden club’s Yard-of-the-Month sign regularly puts down stakes, we are an enigma. Anyone who dares enter our backyard does so at great mortal risk. Last summer a privet of Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey Juniors popped up, snipping and hissing over the fence. Secretly, it brings me misguided joy to envision Miss Estelle suddenly recoiling while peering through the knothole into my yard seeking further affirmation of her contention that we indeed are irresponsibly inadequate.
Miss Estelle and I, however, are not so different. I, too, make cursory judgments of people, refusing to let them free from the pigeonholes in which I put them, summing up every man and woman by his or her response to weeds. Weed Watchers, for example, don’t have time to pull, kill or prevent weeds because of football, baseball, NASCAR, water polo and synchronized swimming events on ESPN. They refuse to face problems, but they enthusiastically embrace change; particularly changing channels. Weed Killers, on the other hand, are calculating, power-hungry control freaks. All ends justify the means.
Then there are the Miss Estelles of my world, the Weed Preventers. No one surpasses their punctuality, but they possess less spontaneity than cicadas on a 20-year mating schedule. Meticulous perfectionists, they plan their calendars months, even years, in advance. Weed Preventers do not sweat, perspire or glisten, and can gracefully move from pruning the roses to serving a six-course meal for 12.
This is where Miss Estelle and I are at odds. I’ve got the personality of a Weed Puller. I live for instant gratification. I stay busy, but I’m easily distracted. A Weed Puller doesn’t mind uncertainty and tends to act impulsively.
Often, passing by the flower beds on my way from the car to the front door, I bend over and pluck a weed. Soon I’m weaving my way erratically through plantings—sweet-scented gardenias, traffic-stopping hydrangeas and other less fortunate flora I’ve demoralized—with my forgotten purse slung over my shoulder. It swings like a wrecking ball and slaps me in the face as I reach for another weed. Miss Estelle spies me. She sees that I need help, but it takes the whole of fall for her to decide exactly what kind.
In the true spirit of Christmas giving, she sends her yardman with his pruners to do indecent deeds to my crepe myrtles. I pout like I did when I was 10 and craved a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans for Christmas, but got another monogrammed sweater instead. My mama taught me to smile and say thank you, anyway, so I force a grin. Miss Estelle, I know, only has the best interest of my soul at heart. Nonetheless, staring the proverbial gift horse in its mythical mouth, I tell the young man to let Miss Estelle know that next Christmas I’d like to have my hedge of Audrey Juniors clipped.