News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

April 27, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: Lasting beauty: Miss Kinsey’s forsythia

Some gardens, gardeners leave a legacy lasting even harsh winters

It always seems like it’s Sunday when we notice Miss Kinsey’s forsythia. Joanie and I will be driving home from church, most often with our windows down so we can enjoy springtime breezes and smells.

And then, as we are talking about nothing in particular, we catch it in a passing flash of yellow and green. We have never known it not to be there.

Elizabeth Kinsey lived in Coxville in a small, white-clapboard frame house, first with her parents, then with her aging mother only, and then on her own. She seemed like a Haversham-like character to a young girl like my wife, in the days when she’d tag along with her handyman dad to look after the old lady’s clunky television or wind-blown antenna.

Miss Kinsey liked flowers, and so, within just a few feet of her windows, she planted forsythia, which Joanie says couldn’t have been nearly as tall as it is now.

All that is left of her house these days are a few chunks of foundation concrete, for falling into disrepair in the years after Elizabeth closed her beauty parlor and died, the place eventually took on an air of abandonment. I can’t quite recall, but it seems to me it finally disappeared as bonfire kindling 20 years or so ago, leaving behind a few daffodils, a bit of ivy, and a little Sweet William.

For the most part, Miss Kinsey’s small lawn is now just an overgrown patch of brush and weeds and roadside trash.

I am fascinated with such simple stories. There once was a house and a kind old lady who lived in it. And now, we see only the overgrown spot where both home and owner once stood, it in hardware-store paint, her, perhaps, in a cotton house dress. But despite its scraggy appearance, her forsythia has stood the test of time, a monument to the woman who lived and gardened on that spot. It makes me wonder about the years ahead, perhaps long after my house is gone, as to what will live on that my hands have touched, planted, nurtured, built.  

This year has been a tough one for forsythia. I have several stands of it myself, and it seems as though the few sprigs of gold they had were replaced by tiny lime-green leaves in a matter of just a day or two. Usually, its flowers are around long enough for us to enjoy a week or more, shining like back-porch bug lights amid a sea of greening springtime grass.

It is much more usual for us to be complaining this time of year about our magnolia, which bursts like popcorn in a display of fragrant white blooms. But its flowers never stay for long: a chilly April night or windy cold front nearly always decapitates its prettiness too soon.

This year, however, it has been in bloom for nearly two weeks, its flowers just now giving way to new leaves in the warm sun of an Easter Sunday afternoon.

I have been taking stock this week as to which plants of mine made it through this killer winter, and which


I have a few tulips that have endured near our mailbox for more than 30 years now, and despite rude blasts of road salt and gritty sand, and an untended home in our hard yellow clay, I see they are up and ready to bloom in the next few days — 10 to 12 red buds growing bolder and bolder.

But the hens-and-chickens in both our big pots, despite being under the barn roof and protected all winter, are as dry and dead as fall leaves; Joanie will have to start those from scratch.

The English ivy that crawls up our storage shed and covers the hillside near my cabin has had a very slow start, too, so slow, in fact, that I find myself breaking a vine or two every so often just to see if there’s any green to be found in it.

Several big clumps of ornamental grass, and a butterfly bush that I nursed back from the dead just last spring, are goners, and we’ve lost too many chrysanthemums to even count.

Along the back roads we drive, we find spots where houses once stood. Lilies and daffodils and peonies dot the landscape in places where driveways once found their way to homes and where tillers strained against the earth.

Fence posts, too stubborn to drop over, still stand, gate hinges hanging from them like rusted tongues. The ghosts of houses still hover in those places, perhaps the laughter of children, too. I hope that will not be the fate of my place; I have worked hard here and want someone to take over where I leave off, someone who will fight the good fight.

In Ray Bradbury’s great “Fahrenheit 451,” a book that the author, himself, believed would help him “live forever,” a character named Granger speaks of his grandfather. His words are among my very favorites.

I have used them before, but they are worth repeating again:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

I have a feeling that Miss Kinsey’s forsythia will be there a few more lifetimes, too.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mike to learn more about his books.

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