I don’t know their species. They are roses. They’ve always been there, from my earliest memories. I could look them up, I suppose, on the pretext of seeing what they need to thrive. But they thrive on their own, more or less, with a little maintenance.
They stretch along the split rail fence that runs up from the grassy end of Water Street, near the slope down to the Mill Pond. The only break is at the driveway, and they continue on to the intersection with School Street, where they take a right and head south along Hammond Lane. Interspersed with lilies, a small cedar and some troublesome infestation of bittersweet, the roses continue to the 90 degree turn to the west that the lane takes. Under the shade of the silverleafs they persist, somewhat diminished in grandeur, to the edge of the fence that overlooks the back of the Mill Pond.
I’ve been scraping my legs against these thorns much of my life. The Avis M. Chase cottages, left in trust to the YWCA of Philadelphia in the 1950s, sit along this end of Water Street, a legacy of another time. My grandfather, according to my father, was hired by Avis Chase herself just after World War II to look after the grounds here.
Basically that meant cutting the grass and trimming the hedges. From time to time, it could also mean ripping out any poison ivy and repairing the fence posts and rails. And for now 70 years, it also meant pruning the rose bushes.
I’ve taken photos of those roses over the years. When fogs drifted up from the other end of Water Street, from the harbor and the cold Atlantic, on too quickly warmed-up June days, the pink-fuschia-coral blossoms strewn about and around the fence stood out like mystical necklace upon the expanse of the grassy field of the main house. These are the times when the thick air both muffles the outside world and somehow also accentuates random nearby sounds.
A cricket in the grass. An osprey high over the pond. A family walking down the shore with oars and life jackets.
Four generations of my family have pushed mowers here, pruned these roses. Even Sofie, who when very little took breaks to don a bathing suit and wade in the high tide that laps at the stone wall at the bottom of the hill. It’s one of those unique experiences a child can have here – to play outside while a parent works nearby.
It’s one of the reasons I remain in Chatham, and the seasonality and flexibility of taking care of a properties like this make the routine maintenance of single parenthood, and a creative life here, possible. The patchwork life of a Cape Codder.
And roses require maintenance. These certainly do. Shoots and vines are forever trying to extend into the road on one side or the lawn on the other. I’ve left my truck window open one morning only to find a rose vine seemingly grown into it by noon.
But the real hazard is circling these bushes with a self-propelled lawn mower. Come within six feet and you will discover a thorn-covered vine you hadn’t seen previously raking across your calf. Try to disentangle and it will find its way to your forearm, your back, your face. Like barbed wire, it is just impossible to avoid. All work stops until it is escaped from. Meanwhile clothes are torn, blood is spilled.
Plenty of times I have been told my shins were covered with dried blood and nasty scrapes. It became such a common occurrence that I don’t recall exactly how it happened. Not that it doesn’t hurt. You just move on.
This is even if the roses are pruned properly and regularly. Without that I may need a blood donor. That’s not even taking into account the needs of the plant itself. Energy poured into growth is diverted from the blooms. The roses just won’t put on the show we’ve come to expect in summer if they run wild. So in the spirit of enlightened self-preservation, they’ll be attended to.
When I was a kid I was shocked to learn that trees had regular lifespans. I thought they were eternal, like rocks. Now I’ve come to wonder how long these roses will live, even with proper care. I have no memory of ever planting one. Will they outlive me? I would be sad to see any one of them die.
Then again, I do not think of them as individual plants. They are THE roses. A single, beautiful and terrifying entity. Ever in residence, ever in need of care.