A different kind of memorial keepsake
Johnny was my husband’s college buddy who recently became an avid photographer. He invited us to go car camping during the memorial long weekend in the Redwood Coast Parks at the border of Oregon and California.
“It’s the best time to enjoy the Azalea flowers there.”
I still vividly recall the ecstasy expression my grandpa mentioned his most stunning encounter of rhododendron flowers when he, one of modern China’s founding geologists, brought his students to a geography discovery field trip back in the early 1960s near the then-very-rural Shangrila of China.
“The azalea flowers were literally a sea of colors that rolling over the hills and covered them all. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever encountered in my entire life.” My grandpa told me.
It was one of my fondest memories of my golden years with my grandpa, so I had some long-lasting imaginations of that scene based on his detailed descriptions.
I was hoping that I could see something half close to that.
More to Johnny’s disappointment, the secret places where he took one good shot in the last couple of years were all evergreen this time. We examined the trees and the tip of the branches and could hardly tell whether we missed the flowering time or were yet to come.
But I did notice the half-cultivated versions of rhododendron flowers all over the places around the residents’ houses in that region. Most of them were in the prime time of blossoming, bushes, and trees, and some of them were quite strikingly beautiful, even from my fast passing driving glimpses.
So I petitioned to make some stops in front of these random houses on the roadside to take a tourist’s “I am here!” photos with these flowers.
On our way heading back home, Johnny brought us to a small tourist site where you can drive your car through a live redwood tree trunk.
“Take your time, and we are waiting for you down here cause we’ve been there before.”
It is a tiny park with a single road less than 500 yards long leading to the trunk with a small parking place so cars can make turns and wait for the driving through.
The entry check-point was empty, and there was a sign suggesting this was a self-servicing park with a fee.
And there was even a wooden toilet with a new moon carved on the door, and the flowering rhododendron was surrounding the whole structure.
I walked out of the park in less than 2 minutes, walked to the house next to the park, and was instantly mesmerized by the three small flowering trees.
They were at the prime of their beautiful moment. I could not help but walk towards them. I have to hold them, bury my face into them, and inhale the fainted crisp yet dewy aroma of them.
When my face touched these silky cool pink petals, I felt something deeply intimate and personal. I was sensing some messages in a very abstract way from these flowers. And that led me to an impromptu urge to talk to the owners of these trees, which was likely in the house just behind them.
That was when I noticed the house was totally emptied.
The late afternoon sun lited the empty rooms and the windowed front porch. A warm breeze swept through, gently touched my face and my hair. Even from the emptiness, I could somehow tell the house used to be very well maintained and stuffed with cute wooden decor small and large, perhaps crafted by the handy husband under the instructions of the tasteful artsy wife.
Someone still keeps their lawn well maintained, but where are they now?
I walked back to our friend couple who were waiting for me and told them my findings.
Johnny was surprised.
“We talked to the old lady in that house just two summers ago about how beautiful these flowers were!”
An instant sadness wetted my eyes.
Late I found out that only this old lady presented in the house two years ago, so the husband was gone already back then. And Zillow showed the house was likely built back in 1949 and never changed hands till this day. So they are most likely the ones who were involved in the operations to carve a big hole of the 700+ years old redwood tree and eventually made it one of the most visited sites in the coast parks.
They lived a modest life, but they welcomed and met so many people from all walks of life and worldwide.
Now they were all gone.
The less than 700 residents of this small unincorporated town must have decided to keep the show going.
Do they have any kids? If so must be like myself’s age and lived somewhere near or far.
These rhododendron trees are the best personal touch of their legacy. I imagined the old lady was blonde with eyes of a color that always reminds you of the nearby coastal ocean’s deep blue water reflecting the endless shining Calfornia sky.
I picked up a fallen petal and put it into a book as a memorial keepsake for this lady and my own grandpa.
Johnny later sent me the photo they took two years ago about this lady — she looked exactly like I imagined.
I shared with them the photo of my grandpa standing in front of a flowering azalea tree, smiling as bright as the sky over the Shangri-la, China, 60 years ago, back in time.