In Spring of 1999, Craig and I discovered Magnolia “Elizabeth, ” densely clustered with yellow blossoms, planted at the edge of Longenecker Horticultural Garden’s collection of magnolias. Smelling faintly of “Lemon Joy” dish detergent, her petals gleamed in the pale April sunshine. An uncommon variety, subtly fragrant, and a reliable bloomer in USDA zone 4a, “Elizabeth” was, in my opinion, a perfect tree. I knew right where I wanted to plant my yellow magnolia, behind our new house. I would watch the golden, bird-like buds spread into lotus-shaped cups as I sipped coffee on our back porch. I would catch a hint of lemony sweetness on the breeze through the kitchen window as I washed our dishes. I took out the pocket notebook where I was compiling a list of plants we wanted for our landscape, and wrote “Magnolia Elizabeth” at the top of the list.
Before a spadeful of dirt could be turned, however, or a yellow magnolia planted, a Grand Backyard Scheme must be devised. Craig considered all the factors. Our plan had to be both simple and sophisticated; it had to demonstrate exacting taste and sensitivity to the site. A seemingly bottomless reservoir of pent-up imagination poured through his mechanical pencil onto sheets of tracing vellum. Berms and ground-level decks, benches and perennial beds overwhelmed me with choices. No matter how much I liked the plan Craig showed me, there was always a little more work to do before we could choose a design and start digging.
“This year, we might not plant anything, honey, ok? This year, we’ll let the grass grow and I’ll mow some paths to try out, ok? Your tree will be in there, I promise.” But that summer the location of the water feature and the proximity of the grilling area to the kitchen could never quite be resolved. Planting the magnolia had to wait. The following year, a source for perfect mid-century paving blocks could not be located, so the size of perennial bed had to be reconsidered, including the location of the magnolia. Grass would grow, leaves would fall, and Craig would return to drawing another, better backyard for next year. In our unused real-life backyard, there was still literally nowhere to plant my yellow magnolia.
When our 10 year marriage ended, so did the stalemate with our backyard. We sold the house’s insufficiencies – and the decisions that couldn’t be made about how to correct them – to someone else. At the final walk through with the new owner, Craig handed the confident young man dozens of tabloid sheets of tracing vellum – all the plans he had drawn for kitchen remodels, entry way relocations, and landscaping features. “There’s no reason for me to keep these now” he said, “maybe you’ll – there’s a lot of ideas here.” “Cool, cool,” the new owner replied, taking the drawings, a little confused. Craig was suddenly embarrassed, realizing for the first time that the house might actually seem good enough to this guy, just the way it was.
I don’t miss the house on the east side of Charles Lane, just south of Tokay, but I wouldn’t have minded leaving a tree full of yellow flowers there for the next person. If we had planted one the spring we found “Elizabeth,” she would be about 14 years old today. I wish I could sneak into my old backyard this year to see how Magnolia Elizabeth is doing. Did she bloom a little earlier in her open spot, between the kitchen window and the porch, where the sun was brightest in the early spring, before the trees along the fence line leafed in? Or were her buds still perched along the skeleton of branches, waiting to spread their petals and fly away?
Maybe it’s not too late.