#2: Magnolious

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We plant trees for the women in our family who die.  It began with a Redbud, my mother’s favorite, at the world headquarters of Unity Village, Kansas City.  Then came a Magnolia for our forty-nine year old sister, Gretchen.  It was placed twenty feet from Mom’s Redbud, which died shortly after Gretchen’s tree went in the ground.  We bought a replacement, it died too, and now we commemorate them both in the Magnolia.

Near the end of Gretchen’s life, she took care of someone’s house, plants, and animals while they were on vacation.  Early in their week of absence, she got all gussied up in one of the owner’s cocktail dresses, shoes that Gretchen could barely walk in, and adorned herself in jewels.  She drove their BMW to a bar, brought a guy home, and as if she lived there, entertained him for six nights in a row.

On the eve before the owners return, Gretchen called me and explained her predicament, not knowing what to tell the guy.  I said, “You have to tell him the truth.”

“I can’t do that!  He’ll think I’m a big liar.”

“Well, what if he knocks on their door looking for you?’

“I know, what should I do?”  I heard the conspiring laugh.

“ I think you have to tell him, Gretch.”

I never found out how she got out of that one.   Smoke inhalation in an apartment fire took her life.  At her memorial, during the informal stories from those she saved and loved when no one else was there for them, a teary-eyed tall blonde stood to speak.

“Gretchen worked for us a few days a week,” she said.  “She only did what she wanted and it wasn’t that much.”  A knowing laugh erupted from the attendees.    “But she was so good with the kids and our pets.”

Remembering Gretchen’s description of the woman whose persona she assumed, it was clear I was looking at her.  “The weird part though, “ the woman continued, “is how much time we spent talking to her, about her after she went home, and even my friends called to hear the latest Gretchen episode.   She drove us a little crazy, but we’ll really miss her.”

I view Gretchen’s week of borrowed identity as a climactic convergence.  She’d always been a prankster, an envious person, she possessed theatrical flair, and an impulse to impress.  And she felt most alive the moments after a big scare.  But the biggest influence in her life was disappointment.  In Gretchen’s mind, it was only through intrigue and risk that she could begin to approach her magnolious potential.

Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:                ‘ Magnificent, splendid, large’

Magnolia photo by Marissa Bridge

A Day Late, A Magnolia Short

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Had my sister Gretchen lived, she would have been fifty eight years old yesterday, April 18th.  Today at the New York Botanical Gardens, I attempted to capture her in the same genus of tree we planted in her memory: the Magnoliaceae.

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She was grand and strong with a tender soul.  As my mother would say, life threw her for a loop.

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Majestic as a Magnolia, she was as messy as the tree could be: one minute in fleshy glory, the next, petals covering the ground with banana peel slickness.

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A fleeting beauty in the shortest season, we love and miss you, Gretchen.