I got a call from a friend in Seattle who had made a shift in her afternoon plans and taken her dog to Volunteer Park. She hadn’t been there in ages and was calling to ask me if I’d ever seen the dahlia beds there–she was totally enchanted by the variety of colors and size, density and texture.
I have seen the dahlia beds at Volunteer Park, not recently but I’m sure they’re amazing. When I think of them, though, I cannot help but think of Charlotte.
First of all, I have to make it clear that I never knew Charlotte well; we met a couple of times and would say hello on the street when we saw one another, but she was also one of those vague, older women on Capitol Hill who may have just said hello to anyone, to cover in case she did really know them.
In the ’60s my friend Annie met Charlotte working at a dive bar on Broadway, nicknamed The Toilet. Annie had hired on as a bartender, Charlotte was a waitress, and each had lived totally different trajectories that landed them there.
This was a straight bar in a very straight time–it was just a place where people had gone so low no one particularly cared about what anyone else was doing. It was a small tank of people who drank too much together on a daily basis and that was enough. Within some time and for reasons I cannot imagine, Annie and Charlotte moved in together and were a couple for somewhere around ten years.
Annie told me that in the summers, on nights when they’d closed the bar and were still too drunk to go home, they’d often head up to Volunteer Park, to the north of the museum where the trees have the air and room to grow to full height and width: Deodar Cedars, Grand Firs, Bigleaf Maples–enormous sillouettes in the dark blue summer night. In the spirit of bad romantic fiction Annie and Charlotte would bound across the grassy space toward one another, calling out multi-syllable made-up names, Allister, Rosamunde, embracing in the middle of the field, collapsing and cackling.
By the time I met Annie this was all long behind them: she had moved into her own house and sobriety, Charlotte to a basement apartment where she watched soap operas and smoked pot. But they still counted each other as sort of family and would occasionally get together for a meal or walk. Annie told me that Char loved to go up to Volunteer Park in the fall to see the dahlias. She would go to each one and stare, or when no one was watching, pet them–put her hands over the ones that look like honeycombs and gently squeeze.
When Charlotte died, her daughter couldn’t make it up to take care of the arrangements and didn’t really have the money for a burial, so Annie paid for the cremation. Shortly after that I got a phone call: I was invited to join Annie and another friend. They were going to scatter the ashes and then have lunch. I was at work and only caught up with them at the restaurant, where they told me they had just come from scattering Charlotte in the dahlia beds
“Is that legal?” I asked, and Annie said she had no idea but probably not. “And I didn’t call the Dahlia Society to find out. But it’s the only thing I could think of that Char would want.” About this time Annie’s friend Don crossed his legs and one of them noticed he had a blob of cremains on his tasselled loafers, and I think we all hoisted our glasses or mugs to Char.
After lunch I drove up to the park myself. The dahlia beds were fallow that time of year, but very visibly snaking across the topsoil was a fairly thick line of gunpowder gray ash.
Annie is buried now at the old cemetery next to the park. I placed her ashes in the ground myself, in an urn that fit into the concrete liner that these things go into when they’re interred. Hers was a much more formal upbringing and the setting is unbelievably stately and austere, but it was her choice to be buried there. It is possible that being buried at the family plot was her own form of rebellion.
Meanwhile, a block to the south of the pillar and headstones, through the very tall trees, just beyond the conservatory and the children’s wading pool, on a warm fall afternoon the dahlias rise out of the ground on their tall stalks, swathed in their serrated emerald leaves: a mad riot of colors and shapes–some with heads like lions, others like fireworks–reds and yellows and hot oranges and brilliant pinks, creams, and purples and golds.