by Stan Cutler
Valerie, my wife, has a particular affection for a hybrid daylily that grows in a narrow strip beside the path. Bob Marselonis, who died of AIDS in 1989, gave it to her. He was only 40 years old. Whenever she sees it blooming, she remembers.
Bob made his living as a computer technician, but he thought of himself as a Broadway composer. When he started to die, when different parts of his body failed simultaneously, he had just finished writing his first three-act play. He gave it to us to read, joyfully sang it and played it for us at the baby grand piano in his living room. He was a fanatical gardener, outdoors every day, even in winter. I remember that he looked forward to rainy days, his favorite time because the soil is soft and easily worked. We remember him crawling around in the rain, soaked, daubed with mud, singing as he cared for the plants surrounding his corner house in Germantown. We lived three houses away. One muggy, overcast day, he appeared on our porch with the plant in his hands. He and Valerie were gardening buddies. “I was thinning the daylilies,” he said. “This one is great.”
Those were different times. Gay men were coming out of the closet, liberated, testing America’s emerging acceptance. And they were dying. It just didn’t seem fair. During the late eighties, Bob would host annual “Smithies and Fairies” parties at his house. The smithies were Philadelphia artists and craftsmen who worked in metal. The fairies were their friends. The gatherings were great fun; lots of beer, lots of music, some weed, only a few women. Valerie and her escort felt privileged by the invitations.
AIDS is far more deadly than COVID-19, which is plenty bad enough. AIDS wrecks a person’s immune system, infections take over. Watching the exuberant, funny guy become a wan, wasted man in pain was awful. This disease, COVID-19, is different because it is transmitted through the air. AIDS is sexually transmitted. It spread among gay men within a few years, before people knew anything about it. When it was finally named, it was already widespread across the country. Bob had been living in San Francisco when the reality of the epidemic became clear. He moved back to Philly, hoping to dodge the bullet.
There is no easier plant than the daylily. It can live in sun or shade, moist or dry, flat or slope, in any type of soil. Its only drawback is its hardiness because it duplicates itself relentlessly. Start out with one or two and you’ll have a dozen in a few years. Its narrow sword-shaped leaves can be almost two feet long. Unless you keep after them, the daylilies can take over your garden.
Daylily flowers stay open for a day, but a half-dozen bloom on each stalk, so a stand of daylilies is typically in bloom for a few weeks because the plants produce the stalks in stages, days apart. The spent flowers are called “scrapes”. Valerie snaps them off and drops them onto the ground whenever she’s standing nearby. By so doing, the plants look healthier and don’t waste energy developing fertilized seed inside the scrapes.
When I was a boy in southwest Philly, our rowhouse was a block and a half away from the nearest tree. I remember being astonished by a patch of daylilies that managed to survive in a brick, concrete and asphalt neighborhood. On our block, the houses had tiny front lawns. My Mom had a rose bush. Mrs. Berkowitz had a few of what we called tiger lilies, the orange daylilies that grow wild in southeast Pennsylvania. I didn’t know a thing about plants but thought that having any kind of tiger on our block was pretty cool.
There are hundreds and hundreds of daylily varieties. The flower colors go from pure bright yellow through the orange-pink-red-purple spectrum. In most, the flowers have different shades of the same color. Hybridizers have succeeded in developing plants with far more petals than the common species. These hybrids have much thicker, more complicated flowers. Because they require so little care and because they are so reliable, it’s easy to overlook the individual beauty of each flower, to glance at them without noticing the subtlety of the color variations and petal shapes. Valerie is not one to take any flower for granted. “Did you see this one? It’s amazing,” she’ll say.
But her particular favorite is the double-petalled orange one that Bob Marselonis gave her more than 30 years ago. When we moved from Germantown, she brought some of her perennials. The most precious, the one that she loves in a very special way, is that one.
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