By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet. – Colette, Mes Apprentissages (1936)
We are reminded today of a haunting, beautiful passage from a work by the great French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873–1954) called Break of Day (La Naissance du jour) (1928). The book opens with a letter Colette’s mother wrote to Colette’s first husband, Henri de Jouvenel:
You ask me to come and spend a week with you, which means I would be near my daughter, whom I adore. You who live with her know how rarely I see her, how much her presence delights me, and I’m touched that you should ask me to come see her. All the same, I’m not going to accept your kind invitation, for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is probably going to flower. It’s a very rare plant I’ve been given, and I’m told that in our climate it flowers only once every four years, Now, I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.
So I beg you, Sir, to accept my sincere thanks and my regrets, together with my kind regards.
– Sidonie Colette
Colette’s mother, Sido, simply states here what the author will soon learn in the course of the book: that at a certain age, individual human relationships must cease to be the primary focus of our lives as they give way to solidarity with the natural universe. This occurs by accepting the harmony between human and natural rhythms. It is not a question of preferring flowers or animals to human beings, but rather it is a recognition of limits — particularly physical limits — which brings her to the conclusion that humans must eventually abdicate their roles (whatever they may be), and that in this release there is a compensating joy. The book reflects on achieving independence and finding peace and beauty in nature as one matures.
We were reminded of this passage not by a cactus, but close — by a succulent. Some years ago while on a wine tasting adventure in Central Virginia — one of our first, actually — we stayed at the Inn at Meander Plantation in Orange County. The house is a substantial old thing, begun by Joshua Fry (1699-1754), a surveyor and the author (with Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father) of the famous Fry-Jefferson Map of Virginia. He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and acquired the land in 1726, which he called Elim; the name Meander was given to the property in the early 20th century. The house was enlarged in 1766 by Henry Fry (1738-1823), Joshua’s son.
The house fronts on Route 15, the storied “Old Carolina Road,” an Indian trading path that became a colonial road linking Pennsylvania and North Carolina. This route was recently designated the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area in recognition of this part of the Virginia Piedmont’s role in the history of the nation (incidentally, Route 15 passes near Annefield some 134 miles to the south). Thomas Jefferson is known to have been a frequent guest, and the peripatetic Marquis de Lafayette stayed there on his grand tour of the United States in 1824.
We settled in the old summer kitchen, which was the original plantation kitchen house. Outside of that little house was this very large succulent in a pot, the foliage had a pendulous, weeping quality. The plant was massive and quite striking, so with the owner’s permission we took home a cutting as a memento of the visit, doing little more than placing it in a south facing window and watering when we think of it. No one there knew the name of it, and under our care it thrives on neglect. We’ve carried it from house to house for the last seven years. It grows rather slowly and admittedly we haven’t treated it as well as we should. This year we placed it outside in full sun during the summer, and we were rewarded with this single bloom, a starburst of greenish white petals with a frizzante of filaments bearing the anthers aloft, and a lurid lavender style bearing a sulfur yellow stigma. An extraordinary sight.
We were accompanied by friends on that trip who had not really experienced Virginia wine country, and we were not disappointed — dinner the first night at Palladio, followed by visits the next day to Barboursville, Horton, and Keswick. The second night we dined at the Inn, which was a special treat. The dining room is open to the public, and the innkeepers present an elaborate and sophisticated five-course meal, and their extensive wine list presents an exceptional collection of Virginia wines. There were many other wineries, but with the passage of time we can’t recall which of the many we visited in and around Albemarle county, though we must point out an addition literally around the corner from the Inn, Castle Gruen Vineyards & Winery.
The flower did not last long, withering after just a few days. What a thrill it was to see it. This plant will likely be placed in an urn on the cross-axis of the parterre behind the house at Annefield, where it will receive the sunlight it needs while we anxious await another bloom.
The Inn at Meander Plantation, 2333 North James Madison Highway, Locust Dale, Virginia 22948 (800) 385.4936