Picture shows an orange daylily with red accents. Dewdrops form on the leaves.

Stories of Hope: Nazis, Cancer and Southern Gardening

Most of my adult life has been spent as a nomad, wandering from town to town every two years which just so happens to be the length of a television news contract. I was very good at decluttering and packing, but I was terrible at putting down roots. Secretly, I was afraid of planting myself in the wrong place, and getting stuck. That changed in 2008, when I bought my first home in Jackson, Mississippi.

It came with a huge yard and “mature trees”. Directly in front of the house sat a giant American Sweetgum tree with dark green leaves as big as my hand. The tree was as old as the house, and had grown three stories tall. The branches of that tree reached out in all directions, almost reaching the property line.

Picture shows a three-story tall American Sweetgum tree in front of Dawn Dugle's former home.
Giant American Sweetgum tree.

That tree also tried to kill me. I was blissfully unaware of the danger that lurked on the ground, until I stepped on something that stabbed my big toe. A streak of profanity echoed through the branches as I looked down. It was this tiny round thing that reminded me of Tribbles from Star Trek. Tribbles at least were fuzzy and cute. These spawn of Satan were the seedpods of the sweetgum tree.

They’re about an inch in diameter and covered with dozens of prickly spines. I read somewhere that the sweetgum tree doesn’t even start producing the seedpods until it’s at least 20 years old, and that sounded about right. Most humans don’t get prickly until we get older either.

The American Sweetgum seed pods.

That was the extent of what I knew about my new yard. I had no idea what plants or trees I had just inherited and it all somehow looked like a dare. Like I was daring plants to grow here.

If this was HGTV, my yard would be the “before” picture. The “after” transformation would be right next-door.

Meeting Margaret

Joe and Margaret McMullin were senior citizens with grown children and grandchildren. Their yellow house was twice the size of mine, and the entire yard looked like something Beatrix Potter illustrated. A hedge was fastidiously trimmed around their parking area. Waxy crape myrtles were the perfect size for the corners of the yard, and bloomed a deep pink in the summer heat. Along the privacy fence were these waist-sized trees with green and red leaves. They were planted all along the fence, and throughout their property.

Flowerbeds wound all the way around the house and sheds. They contained a mix of different colored flowers that attracted butterflies and birds. And it seemed there was always something blooming, all of the plants coordinating their colorful debuts. I half-expected to see fairies or wood nymphs tending to the flowers.

In the early days, I only interacted with Joe. He told me stories about the neighborhood and my house. Then one day, I stopped seeing him out in the yard. A few days later, the casserole brigade of black-clad mourners took over our street.

The following week, I went over to express my condolences to Margaret. When we met, it was her posture that I first noticed. She always stood perfectly straight, with her shoulders back, head held high and chin up. Margaret somehow managed to sit this way too. This proper posture was matched by her proper British accent. She grew up in London with the Queen’s English – both in word choice and accent. I was not surprised when she asked me to come in for some tea.

The house was stuffed with furniture. It also looked like the wildflowers outside had grown through the walls and embedded into the wallpaper. A cloying floral scent permeated the house. It wasn’t fresh flowers; it was the brand of perfume Margaret wore with abandon.

We settled in the sunroom at the back of the house, which had a brilliant view of her backyard garden.

“I really like your plants,” I said.

“Thank you. I’ve been working on the yard since we moved in.”

Margaret smoothed a hand over her puff of white hair, and smiled politely. The next 20 minutes were an agonizing mix of talking about the weather and nothing in particular. She had just lost her husband of 59 years and I had no idea what to say.

The next few weeks, I went out of my way to wave or say hi when I saw her in the yard, and she was always in the yard fussing over her plants.

In Margaret’s grief, she would fuss about the little things. She was disappointed at this plant or another because it wasn’t doing what she hoped it would. She clucked her displeasure at the trash guys when they didn’t leave her cans the right way. She complained about the drivers speeding on our street.

Sometimes I would catch her staring at me or shaking her head at my feeble attempts to get something to grow in my yard, before she went inside her house. It felt like nothing I did in the yard could measure up.

Southern Sass

One particularly hot summer day, I just finished mowing the grass and was starting to get heat sick. I stood in a daze, looking at a flowerbed on the side of my house. It was chock full of orange daylilies and a dozen other plants I couldn’t identify. Margaret called to me over the privacy fence.

She always sounded like Julia Child when she pronounced my name “Dah-win” in that high-pitched British accent of hers. And it tickled me every time.

“Dah-win,” Margaret called to me. “Are you going to water your plants?”

I don’t know what came over me, maybe it was the heat, because I replied: “No Margaret, I thought I’d ignore them, so you would have something to complain about. I know how much you love to complain.”

Utter silence, then this deep laughter filled up the space in our yards. I stepped around the fence to stare at her, my mouth hanging open.

“That’s true,” she laughed, a twinkle in her eye. “Why don’t you come over for some tea?”

This tea party was different from the last. She told stories about growing up in England and surviving the London Blitz as a young woman. And it was during that time, she met her husband Joe. Soon after the war, they married and she moved to his home state of Mississippi, bringing her love of gardening with her.

Margaret King was 17 when she met Joe McMullin during World War II. He asked a German POW to create this 1945 portrait of Margaret, in exchange for a pack of cigarettes.

Grow Where You’re Planted

She offered to share her expertise with me and over the next year and a half: class was in session. Margaret was the teacher, and her yard was the classroom. She showed me which plant was which. She explained how to care for them and get them to grow in our claylike soil. She shared clippings of her plants to get my garden started.

The more she showed me, the bigger her smile grew. Margaret even told me her secret mantra: if it’s green and you like it, keep it, even if it was an invasive plant or a weed.

Margaret loved nandina, a type of bamboo that some consider “invasive” because it spreads like gossip. She loved it so much she planted it all around her yard. Nandina would grow fast and sometimes have green or red leaves. In the fall it would sprout red berries that the birds love. Best of all, it grew in our yards’ poor soil, and you didn’t have to do much to it to get it to grow. Really, the trick was – just get out of the way.

A lot of her plants were like that. She found specimens that were perfect for our weather and soil and just let them do their thing. Southern gardening and English gardening had that in common – plants thrive when allowed to grow naturally.

She also showed me the hidden beauty of my sweetgum tree. While the seedpods were heat-seeking missiles of torture if you were wearing flip-flops, the shade the tree provided was a godsend during our blistering summer months. It was also home to beautiful cardinals, woodpeckers and a dozen other birds.

During one of our regular tea parties, I commented on her eyelashes. They had suddenly grown very thick and were curling back on her eyelids. I teased her, asking if she was wearing fake eyelashes.

“Got a hot date?” I laughed.

“No, I have cancer,” Margaret didn’t miss a beat as she sipped her tea.

“Cancer? What does that have to do with eyelashes?” I was stunned.

“The drug they gave me makes my eyelashes grow fast. I have to cut them every week!”

“How long did the doctor give you?” I held my breath.

“Six months,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“Six months?”

“Six. Maybe nine. What do doctors know?”

I struggled to make sense of this diagnosis. Margaret looked healthy. She was still spry and moving about the yard as she always had. But the day came when she didn’t move as well and needed rest. Then there were days she didn’t get outside at all, and she didn’t quite feel up for a tea party.

A single thought kept coming back to me: Nazis couldn’t beat Margaret and neither would cancer.

Nazis couldn’t beat Margaret and neither would cancer.

Leaving Mississippi for a new job was hard. I kept my house in Jackson and part of my heart stayed there too. Four years later, when I decided to return, I was looking forward to moving back into my own house and growing my friendship with Margaret. We had kept in touch for about a year after I left, but that dropped off, as we got busy.

I was in Jackson for a visit and stopped by my house to see what condition it was in. It had been rented out for the last four years, and the renters had not been kind. Several flowerbeds were gone. My roses were hanging on by a thread. The daylilies were choking on each other. But the sight that stopped me cold wasn’t in my yard, it was in Margaret’s: a single storage pod.

I knew at that moment she was gone, and my heart broke. I cried until I had no more tears left.

Margaret had battled cancer another three years after her diagnosis. That always makes me smile, thinking of her stubbornness, refusing to give in to cancer or letting a doctor be right.

Her house sat empty for several months until one day – a flurry of moving activity. Margaret’s grandson Garrett and his wife Cindy were moving in. The young couple was expecting their first child and this would be their first home together. I welcomed them to the neighborhood, just as the elder McMullins had done for me.

Paying It Forward

When Cindy wondered what plants were now growing wild in her new backyard and whether or not she should dig them up, I shared Margaret’s philosophies on gardening including – grow where you’re planted. Every time I pointed out a plant to Cindy, I smiled a little bigger, feeling Margaret’s presence with us both.

Grow where you’re planted.

About a year later, I was out in my yard, looking at that same side flowerbed, still trying to decide what to do with it after ten years. Suddenly, an overwhelming scent of floral perfume surrounded me. I whirled around, half expecting to see Margaret standing behind me, but all I could see was the side of my house.

I was alone in the yard, but I could hear her voice as clear as day: “Dah-win, are you going to water your plants?”

“Yes, Margaret,” I smiled at the sky. “Doing that right now.”

Dawn Dugle is a writer and keynote speaker. She tells Stories of Hope.

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