The Dahlia, a friend when all else have gone

In his new column, Let the Busy World Be Hushed, Fr Jason Murphy has an important message of the endurance of true friendship...

One of the many perennial flowers that Michael Wright encouraged me to buy at his market stall was the common or garden Dahlia pinnata, the mainstay of town and cottage gardens down the decades.

It was first introduced as a flower to Europe in the 16th century hailing from the high mountainous regions of Mexico and South America, used by the Aztec tribe for medicinal purposes. When Michael first acquainted me with the Dahlia, it looked nothing as it does growing with wild abundance in the sunny high altitudes of the southern climes or closer to home in the balmy late evenings of August adorning the perennial borders of many a garden in its myriad of colours.

It was late Spring and my first introduction was with wizened up tubers in the bottom of a 10-10-20 fertilizer bag covered with some wet clay to prevent them from drying out.

Holding open the bag, he told me it was the very flower for me, one that would go on and on giving over time and would last from year to year with a little care. As I glanced into in the bag suspiciously, I was unimpressed by what I found and felt that he was attempting to sell me a pig in a poke.

He asked me to trust him, that if I brought these tubers home with me and potted them up under glass out of the reach of the late frost, they would begin to sprout and, come the early summer when the ground heated up, I should plant them out into the garden, support their stalks as the grew and I would have an abundance of colour all through the summer and beyond.

This I did and, as the early Summer passed and the showers fell, the plants grew and grew unbeknownst to me. Come late July and early August, as all the other Summer flowers began to wane, there was a profusion of colour from the flower borders - colours of pink and purple, reds and orange, white yellow and indigo. Some grew to five and six feet tall and spread their leaves, basking in the Autumn sun.

They continued giving, flower after flower, throughout September and October and indeed into the first days of November until the frosts of winter withered their lavish green leaves. Though late in their first flowers, they remained long after the garish colours of summer had gone.

The book of Sirach in the Old Testament tells us that ‘a faithful friend is a sure shelter; they are something beyond all price…. whoever finds one has found a rare treasure for they are the elixir of life .. no measuring their worth’.

On Monday last I stood by and watched as a friend bid farewell to another - two women who had been a sure shelter to one another since childhood - growing up together three score years and ten ago. One married and had a family, staying in her native parish, and the other, who had remained single and spent her life working away from home, returned each week on her days off to care for her elderly mother. After her mother’s death, she continued to return each week to spend time with her childhood friend.

On Mamie’s days off, she and Bernie shared so much together and, as the years passed, each became synonymous with the other - so much so that it was difficult not to mention one name without the other. Just recently, after near 60 years working in Mosney in Co Meath, Mamie retired to the place beside her friend where she herself had grown. Cruelly, in the days shortly after retiring, Mamie was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and, unbeknownst to her, had but weeks to live. An only child, she was without family albeit for a cousin and, on Monday last ,with her friends around, Mamie passed away. I watched at her deathbed as Bernie, heartbroken in her grief threw her arms around Mamie as she breathed her last and cried bitter tears, having to take leave of her lifelong friend.

Like the Dahlia, their friendship had lasted long beyond the heady days of youth when life was full of summer colour; in its beginnings the friendship was but a tuber, nothing spectacular about the commonality that they shared in their childish games of hopscotch and make-believe, nothing that foretold how it might be beyond the springtime of their lives; that their friendship would last well into the shortening days of September and October when the light would begin to fail. Over each of their years, they were to each other a safe shelter, a rare treasure, something beyond all price, until it was that the first of the November frosts came; their friendship had lasted a lifetime.

So, though a friendship might seem unremarkable in its beginnings, like the tuber in the 10-10-20 bag covered in clay, remember that it is the ordinary looking tuber that gives the lasting colour when the pretentiousness of summer passes and the waning light of Autumn comes our way.