Nonfiction: "Bleeding Heart"

“Did you see what those little buggers did?” My grandmother asked in a strained voice. I looked at my grandmother with wide eyes, and slight fear. It was a subtle summer evening storm building behind her blue-gray eyes.


After an early start for my six hour drive to the Northwoods to visit my grandparents, my cognitive skills were a little slow. Even the ham and cheese sandwich and Pepsi she provided moments after I walked in the door were not enough to predict the range of her storm. I had assumed the tension I noticed was in response to something my grandfather did earlier in the day, but he was many things, yet never a “little bugger.”


“Uh, no, I didn’t,” I responded meekly.


“They came from across the road this morning,” she said while pointing to the one-lane road crowded by trees in front of the cabin, “and made their way right across the yard. It was a mamma deer and her two babies.”


“Oh.” I was beginning to see where this was going. It was never good when forest creatures came onto Grandma’s property without an invitation. Whether a squirrel, chipmunk, bird, deer, dog, snake, or bear, there were specific rules and guidelines to follow when entering the Hannigan property--proceed to the designated area and do no damage....except for the bears and snakes, who were never invited on the property for any reason.


“I didn’t see what they were doing,” she continued. “I didn’t think anything of it. But I saw it this afternoon!” She stopped to contain her anger. At this point, I was afraid for the deer, even though I knew that Grandma would not actually shoot the deer for whatever they had done (and Grandpa would not likely hit them if he tried).


“They ate my bleeding hearts! All of them,” she said. “Nothing left.”


Fortunately, I choked down part of my sandwich to help hide my initial response. The bleeding hearts I knew of were those in country songs, but Grandma preferred Sinatra, so I had no idea how the deer got to her hearts.


“Oh, no,” I said with what seemed like the appropriate feeling for someone whose hearts were eaten earlier today.


“You should see what little they left,” Grandma said while moving to the window. “You can’t see it from here because it’s at the corner of the house. You have to go outside.” Even as an adult, I recognized that statement as a “move your butt” sentiment from Grandma. I abandoned my sandwich and Pepsi so we could go outside together. She stayed on the porch and pointed. Following her suggestion, I walked to the corner of the cabin, which was a blind spot between large windows on either side of the building. I came upon a sad, twiggy bush.


“You see?” My grandmother called. Yes, I saw, but not much. There were some green leaves, but nothing that looked like a bleeding heart or otherwise noteworthy. I walked back to the porch. I did not understand her pain at the loss of this bush, but I felt it nonetheless as I saw the angry storm had passed into a stillness.


“I’m sorry,” was all I could say.


“It is supposed to be deer resistant. I guess the deer didn’t know that,” she explained. “The blooms were so beautiful. I thought you’d like them. I wanted you to see them.”


“Will the bush grow back?”


“Probably, but the blooms won’t come back this year. Haven’t you seen a Bleeding Heart bush before?”


“No,” I admitted. I had been coming to their Northwoods cabin since I was three months old. I’ve seen every fern, bush, tree, wildflower, and weed native to the area. While surrounded by Mother Nature’s choices for foliage, my grandmother always insisted on trying to introduce her own touches of flower beauty. The Bleeding Heart bush was her newest attempt to compete with Mother Nature.


“I thought your mother has one. I guess not,” she said, and then adopted her mentoring tone. “The blooms only appear in the spring for a short time, and then they’re gone. But, they’re beautiful in that time. They look like little pink hearts with white centers.”


I hadn’t seen anything like them before, so I couldn’t picture pink hearts on a bush. I’m not sure how I made it that far into adulthood without seeing a Bleeding Heart bush or knowing that those hearts didn’t last. I suspect it added to my grandmother’s disappointment, though, that the experience was taken from me for another year of my life.


The next year, though, I returned to the Northwoods in the spring. There wasn’t a storm in her blue eyes when I walked up the path to meet her on the porch.


“You’re in time,” Grandma said with relief. “There are still a few blooms left, though the bush may not make it another year. It doesn’t look too healthy. Nothing I do is helping.” I looked to the Bleeding Heart bush to see specks of pink. We walked over to the bush together.


“I had to protect them this year,” my grandmother explained, which was an understatement. The entire bush was shrouded in a chicken wire sculpture. This protection service seemed to be keeping the bush in as much as keeping the deer out. I could imagine my grandmother cursing and wrestling with the sharp wire in order to protect this odd shaped bush. I could also imagine my grandfather offering to “make something” to protect the bush, but my grandmother turning down the offer as she was going to defend the bush on her own.


I looked at the little bush with amazement at the beauty of the little pink hearts lined up on a few branches. Several heart blooms hung weightlessly along the bottom of a leafless branch. The delicate blooms did in fact look like hearts, where two pinks petals curved down from the branch and met at a point. The point of the heart, though, was drawn down and the inner white petals peeked out. Thus, it bled with exquisite beauty.


It was a wonder that nature would create something so unique, yet so familiar to human emotion. As I looked down at this overprotected, twiggy bush with brief blooms, I felt a slight tug from the shadow of my own heart. It was a ghostly whisper that I ignored at the time.


While I had brought my camera that year, I could not capture the blooms very well between the chicken wire. Anyone looking at the photos would see the wire, not the delicate blooms.


The bush bloomed for a few more years than expected, but eventually the chicken wire was not needed as the blooms did not return and the bush became deer resistant.


NPR ran a story on May 22, 2014, entitled, “Overexposed? Camera Phones Could be Washing Out Our Memories.” As an amateur photographer for the past year, my response to the title was, “Pshaw” (or something like that). Since carving out a few hours a month to explore the world through my Canon Rebel, I have noticed details and composition that breezed past me for my adult life. According to Linda Henkel, as quoted in the NPR article, her research substantiates that taking photos causes us to remember less of the details of the object we photograph. But, what of the details that we can’t readily see? As a macro photographer, I have witnessed the soft hairs on the body of a butterfly or the tiny drops of dew on a flower bloom. I took a photo this past spring of a bush with little, heart-shaped blooms. It was this photo that brought the buried details of a memory into view.