A Flower Show, a Clematis & Shared Dreams in Marriage


I have big, luscious dreams. I’m a creative. 

But I also have small dreams. Procedural, pedantic, “check off a list” dreams. Last year I checked off a small dream. My husband and I saw the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Gardening is my hobby. The dirty, the solitude, the sky, the tinkering, the control. It feeds my soul. My husband says it feeds my god complex. Well, if gardeners are gods, England is Mount Olympus, and the Chelsea Flower Show is the annual meeting. I was going. It wasn’t my husband’s dream, more like his nightmare given his allergies. But he came too.

When you are married you vouchsafe your dreams – large and small – to each other. 

It was a bonny day in the end of May when we took the Tube to the old Chelsea Hospital grounds. Before I describe the scene I must disclose a persistent quirk: I routinely dress inappropriately. Not only in style but also weather, age –  you name it. Living in London has been a challenge, dressing appropriately is as natural and effortless to the British as regurgitating polite small-talk.

This day however, I made an effort and dominantly conscripted my husband. I wore a tea dress from a cluttered and overpriced vintage shop in Kensington, and dressed him in his sports coat that only saw the light of day at weddings. He added a pocket square. I have no idea where he procured it but he wore it proudly and it was a nice touch.

But alas, once again, we arrived over-dressed. When we passed through the turnstiles the ticket collector mused, “I should let you in for free with these outfits.” My husband missed the sarcasm and credited his pocket square. I mentally added “dress better” to my list of small dreams.

Whatever. Flowers fix everything.

On entry we shuffled around people holding maps and into a long line of stalls and vendors. It was rather dull, I admit. When it started to sprinkle we made our way to the large tent, assuming it was a food hall and looking forward to Pimms and drinking away the lack of flowers that had filled the day so far.

Then we saw glory. The tent had the flowers. The tent was the flower show. The pleasure of this reality and the site that awaited us could only be rivaled by my first view of Macchu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower – other dreams I’ve crossed off lists.

Perhaps it was this sunny feeling that made me oblivious to the sea of people and complete lack of personal space. Or perhaps because we were entering a space inhabited by English gardeners. A polite, unfussy, thoughtful bunch personified by Robin Lane Fox’s long-running Financial Times column and his warm ode to gardens and gardeners; The Thoughtful Gardener. If one must be crammed with fellow members of the species, sign me up for English Gardeners.

And then, the flowers. Every delighted cell in my body took in the scene. Daffodils, tulips, lavender, hosta, lupines, pansies, bustling nasturtiums, cedar trees that smelled like Christmas, fuchsia, succulents, dianthus, lilies… Sections the size of our living room were devoted to individual flowers, boasting 30 to 50 cultivars. There were rock gardens, marsh gardens, a Thai garden, and three English country gardens.

And, rose, the most masculine and manipulative of plants. Their smell hits like a siren’s song. I smelled lemon cake, orange sorbet, and a hint of cloves with each new bloom.


My husband, drugged on antihistamine, couldn’t smell anything, even when I shoved roses up his hooter. He looked happy but bored. He perked up briefly when we found a rose garden with an enchanting tea setting.  A kind but persnickety lady thought we should take a photo because we “belonged there.” My husband – chuffed by the compliment – credited the pocket square. She arranged us like unruly peonies. Hold the cup. Sit up straight. Lean forward. Adjust your hair. Smile!  She took 20 photos of us arranged just so. 


And while we’re on the topic of vintage dresses, I’ll tell the problem with them. 

Vintage sewing. Sewing that cannot support the strain of modern hips. As I stood from this portrait, I noticed a draft. My zipper had broken at the bottom. “Brilliant,” I mused. I had been walking around mooning the entire UK gardening set. My husband immediately started to fasten his pocket square to my dress using our two RHS button pins. I told him that if he thought he was going to fasten something on my bum a la “pin the tail on the donkey,” he had best check himself.

I tied my coat around my waist.

After a while, after we had seen everything, after I became intoxicated by the panoply of scent and sight and elated to be alive, I got caught up in the frenzy and asked my husband for his favorite flower.

In marriage, you want to want to share dreams with each other. But . . . 

It doesn’t always work. I wanted to involve him in the day, make him feel what I felt. Except, in my moment of emotional generosity I had forgotten he has the tenacity of a snapping turtle and the descriptive powers of a moose. And that my dream couldn’t be his dream and the minute I gave up mine he’d form his own passions into which, now, I was to be conscripted.

Thus began the second half of our visit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“Well, yes, it’s back there.” The moose made a vague wave towards the entire rest of the tent. “It was dark. I think it was near the entrance. Or maybe there?” More vague waving.

“You don’t have to have a favorite. It’s OK.”

“No, no, I remember. And I liked it. And I want to find it!”

The rest of the day lay before me like a patient etherized on a table. The zeitgeist shifted from the comforting, warm place of “what I wanted to do” to unfamiliar, less warm place of “what he wanted to do.” I seized the opportunity for an immediate U-turn and pulled him over to a lovely display of purple clematis. Purple, my favorite, kismet color.

“Yes, it was purple like that.”

“Purple? Any other colors?”


“Was the white in with the purple, or was it a flower next to it?”

“I don’t know…”

“Was it small, smaller than this, or a few inches across?”

“I think it was about this size.”

“OK, what about petals, were they a star, with points?” Again, I referenced the clematis. “Or did it have a cup shape, like a tulip?” I made a cup with my hand.

“Um, I don’t know. Maybe points, yes, I think it had points.”

“So it’s purple and white like this, about this size, with points. Let me just say what we’re all thinking here: was it this clematis?”

“No. Definitely not. It was in an hourglass shape.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

But he was off. Trying to find a dark flower, possibly purple with white, and points — although maybe also not points — medium-sized, and in an hourglass shape that intimately resembled, but was most definitely not, a clematis, somewhere in the giant tent. It was crammed with thousands of British Gardeners and me and my ripped dress doing what HE wanted to do in the middle of MY small dream.

We retraced steps. I named random flowers. I winkled out more details including, “not soft” and “wasn’t greeny.” He had a few notions where it might be, and we headed there. Nothing. We were going in circles.

It was pouring. Everyone was in the tent. The ground was muddy, the elbows were rough, the air sticky. I hated everyone. After hours of fruitless searching, the snapping turtle still wouldn’t let go. Just as I was about to kick him in the petunias, I hear:


Bloody hell. In the middle of the tent, in a place we passed 23 times, stood next to almost as many, even a spot I think he had tied his shoe – he had finally found it. And it was, without a doubt, as anyone with a pulse could surmise — AN EFFING CLEMATIS. 



“It was in a different shape. That one was growing up. This is an hourglass.”

“IT’S A VINE! It grows in whatever shape they want it to grow in.”

“Oh. Well. Here it is!” 

What is it like in his head? Do his thoughts echo? This is why it’s better when I’m in charge.

I was done. Done like my stupid dress. We left and walked to the Tube, in the rain. I resented the wasted last hour.

When we got home, my husband went out and came back a bit later with a plant. He had gone to the garden center, in the rain. “I want it to be my plant. Can you help me find a place for it?” It was a small, purple clematis, full of vigor and dreams of its own.

Then he added “Clematis sounds like an STD. We should probably name it.” He made me smile. He warms my heart.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “What about Queen Victoria, because it’s purple?”

”Or, Theodore Roosevelt?” (My husband loves Theodore Roosevelt. Another bull moose.)

“Teddy Roosevelt, clematis.”

There it is. What I love. He delights in the most innocent of things to such an extent you cannot help but delight with him. He has small dreams too.  It made him so happy to have his own plant. We never would have gotten him his own plant had we stayed in the world of “what I want to do.”

We planted Teddy. On the roofdeck, propped up tall. What a successful dream-achieving day. For both of us.

The following year I took my mother to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show because it has always been her dream to go there with me and we both really enjoyed it. 

Teddy Roosevelt, Clematis


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