There’s a Morning Glory in the Gutter
by Hope Yancey
Morning glory and clematis. I always got them confused. It was clematis that grew at Aunt Donna’s house on the hill next door when I was growing up in Gastonia, North Carolina. It climbed the stair rail adjacent to the carport like a stunning bracelet adorning a woman’s slender arm. That staircase and vine formed the backdrop for family pictures over the years, such as my cousins Donna Maria and Rob in prom attire or caps and gowns. I rushed up those steep steps to the back door so many times in my childhood, busying past the big violet-colored blooms. If I ever stopped to feel the texture of the petals in my hand, I don’t recall it.
Purple morning glory and clematis are similar shades, but the shape of the flowers is different. That’s how you tell them apart. Clematis has pointy petals. Morning glory is more trumpet-shaped, or rounded, with heart-shaped leaves. It’s tolerant and can grow in lots of conditions. I was briefly tempted to try to grow morning glory after seeing some seed packets in a home improvement store, but I knew it would be futile with the deer that keep us company in our yard.
My husband and I were traipsing back to the car from breakfast and errands one October day a couple of years ago in the South End section of Charlotte, where new development has been popping up everywhere. The sweetness of my tangerine-and-honey artisan doughnut had not yet faded, offering some sugar-fueled energy to propel me. In our path, I spotted something springing from the dirt at the intersection of South Boulevard and McDonald Avenue: a bright purple flower. It probably traced its lineage to the greenhouse down the street. “What is that flower called?” I mused aloud to Brian over the din of traffic.
Morning glory, as we eventually identified it, grows quickly, making it good for covering up eyesores. Like clematis, it’s a climbing vine and likes to grow around something. In this case, it had invaded and was seeking to conceal a part of the municipal infrastructure some people might consider downright unattractive – a storm drain and trash that had accumulated around it. A civic-minded plant.
Gardening websites say morning glory is known as a “back-to-school vine” because it’s most impressive in September. It was already Halloween morning when I saw this one, but still it was a beauty. If fall is my favorite season, then October must be the best month of my favorite season. I agree with poet Helen Hunt Jackson who thought June couldn’t hold a candle to October. Finding something of splendor in such an unexpected spot enlivened our autumn walk.
For me, the end of summer is a finish line I can’t wait to cross. If my calendar were a box of sharp crayons, I would toss out the wild watermelon, sea green and peach of the hot weather months and color my days instead with the granny smith apple, burnt sienna, copper and chestnut hues of fall. And I guess I can now add purple morning glory to that list.
Later, I discovered there are morning glories among the handful of different flowers depicted in a framed work of art in my hallway at home. I must have walked past them for years without giving them a single thought.
We returned to photograph the street morning glory another day, combining our project with lunch on that side of the city at a Greek restaurant serving the best falafel I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t know if my vine had survived. But it had. I was a bit self-conscious, imagining drivers wondering what we were doing scrutinizing a storm drain, but I persisted in my mission. Let them speculate.
There are many lessons a passerby could take from this morning glory’s existence: Bloom where you’re planted. Take pleasure in small things. Find beauty in unexpected places. Out of the mundane comes beauty. Or maybe it’s the importance of observation that the morning glory teaches.
I think it’s this last one. I remember Mr. Hord, principal of Gardner Park Elementary School in Gastonia, where I matriculated in my early years. His announcements over the intercom system were legend. “Take time to smell the flowers along the way” was his signature remark, repeated for his audience each day. A familiar statement from a reassuring voice whose cadence we all grew accustomed to in the school community. As I recall it, he would emphasize certain words, drawing them out for special attention. Doing so accentuated his message.
I recently looked up Mr. Hord’s 2012 news obituary from The Gaston Gazette. Though he held other positions in education, the obit said, his years as a public-school principal were ending around the time I was entering adulthood in the early- to mid-1990s. I like to think my journalism career started at Gardner Park, where in 1986 I reported and wrote for the school newspaper, Patriots’ Points, and served as editor. In the first edition, I got the scoop on a new assistant principal for a profile piece, including in my interview everything from lighthearted tidbits about hobbies to worries about asbestos in the school building.
I wasn’t satisfied only being a newspaper editor in the 1980s. I was publisher of my own magazine at home, calling it Fashion of the ‘80s. Cover stories featured such gems as “How to Talk to Your Worst Enemy” and “How to Draw Horses.” My advice on talking to your worst enemy: “When you talk to an enemy, you should concentrate on smiling a whole lot. Because you know living well is the best revenge. Try not to overreact. They will take you for a fool.” Not a bad recommendation.
There was also counsel on proper cosmetics application, like I had any idea. My favorite tip: “Be sexy but a very nice girl,” with the word “very” underlined. Where had I gotten this stuff? A completely fictitious interview with supermodel Christie Brinkley rounded out the magazine’s content, though I made the novice journalist’s mistake of spelling her name wrong.
Back then, I suspect many of Mr. Hord’s young listeners may have taken his intercom messages about flowers in a literal sense. As adults, we interpret his trademark line as a metaphor for using our powers of observation, and not losing sight of the details that make life meaningful. I don’t think Mr. Hord necessarily had journalism in mind when he was imparting lessons about observation to children, but cultivating my powers of observation and emphasizing the value of observation are vital journalistic qualities that serve me well, even now.
Beyond that, if noticing something simple, like a flower growing out of the gutter, brings into focus people who have been important to us, such as a beloved aunt or memorable school principal, then I think he was right. We should make time for it.
When I remember the eye-catching clematis vine from childhood, the memory breathes Aunt Donna to life once more and, with it, the influence her love of birds has on me. Like buying me a quirky carrot-shaped birdhouse that went on to shelter many generations of song birds in my backyard. Her affection for Texas author Susan Albert’s mystery books – so well-written and thoroughly-researched – helped shape my own interest in reading mysteries. Many of the books’ titles include plant names. Aunt Donna was a retired teacher, and these were some of her best lessons to her niece.
While he may have been referring to flowers more figuratively than literally, something tells me Mr. Hord would be pleased if he could have seen his former pupil crouched over a storm drain inspecting an oddly-placed vivid purple morning glory. Admittedly, I did not lean in close enough amid the exhaust fumes of the roadway to detect any fragrance that may have been emanating from this blossom. But I got just close enough to prompt some thought. Here is what I learned: If you take this much time to study something – anything, really – it helps you differentiate it. I won’t likely get them confused again, clematis and morning glory, now that I’ve taken time to smell the flowers along the way.
Indeed, Mr. Hord. Indeed. His words are enveloped, in my 48-year-old mind, in the purple hue of my morning glory. How appropriate the morning glory is called a back-to-school vine. I’m going to see if I can find more purple flowers – and whatever else there may be – growing around storm drains. Brian may not want to accompany me on this offbeat adventure.
On a recent fall afternoon, I glimpsed a little “volunteer” sprig of green topped with a violet-colored million bells flower growing in the sidewalk next to a building in downtown Black Mountain, North Carolina. Its unadorned beauty was every bit a match for the artful arrangements of wares in nearby shop window displays, or the window boxes full of more carefully-planted flower combinations. I wondered how many of my fellow tourists noticed it there.
Hope Yancey is a freelance writer and independent journalist in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her journalism has appeared in The Charlotte Observer and Pride Magazine in Charlotte, as well as other publications. She is a graduate of Queens College, now Queens University of Charlotte, Winthrop University and the University of Kentucky. She enjoys writing—and reading—personal essays. Her creative nonfiction and essays have been published in HeartWood literary magazine and Sasee Magazine, among others.