St. Elmsley’s Flowers

April. It was April in my 3rd year of school when I was hired for the summer as a landscaper at St. Michael’s College, at the University of Toronto. And, I unexpectedly learned a lesson about survival.

It was  the most coveted summer job at the university. It was solid work from May to September. The hourly pay was far above the minimum wage. And the hours were great, 7:00am-3:00pm. Well for me they were great…I’m a morning person.

I still remember how I got the job. I heard the college hired two students for summer landscaping work. I was already working for the college library, and one day I casually asked about it in the administrative office while picking up my paycheque from the elderly woman at the desk. “Come back tomorrow at 2pm”, I was told. “Ask for Antonio”.

And that’s what I did. The next day I was waiting at the reception desk of the College’s St. Mary Street office. Antonio, wearing a white shirt and red tie, showed up soon, and listened intently as I pitched myself as his next landscaper.

I guess he was just sizing me up, when he waved-in another gentleman. “Manuel!” he called to the man wearing a green cap and gardening gloves. He introduced Manuel, who was the grounds work supervisor. “This is Mike”, said Antonio. “He is applying for the summer landscaping job”, he said to Manuel. Manuel nodded.  There was a pause. “He works for the Library”, Antonio added.

At that, they both looked at each other. I already knew what they were thinking: I worked for the library. I was already on the college’s payroll. I didn’t even need to fill out an application. Less paperwork for them. I had the job. They told me to start the first Monday after my last exam.

And so I did. A summer of cutting grass, raking, sweeping, digging, watering, and planting flowers. Hundreds of flowers. There were dozens of flower beds around the campus, and the first task of the spring was unloading the flats of annuals to be planted. Every type and every colour.

And I remember something about planting those flowers. It was a particularly dry, warm spring. The dirt was baked and arid. We nonetheless proceeded with prepping the dirt with our trowels, and planting those hundreds and hundreds of flowers.

What I noticed was remarkable. The flowers were full of colour – vibrant, and full of life in their watered, plastic flats. But as soon as they were planted, they almost instantly wilted. No matter how healthy and strong they looked, once they were planted in the dry, parched earth, they lost their colour, their green stems turned pale, and they wilted. And not within hours. I’m talking minutes.

It was nothing that a good watering couldn’t fix, and that we did. Before long, all the newly planted flowers were saved, and back to their full colour and brilliance.

Sometimes I walk past Elmsley Place at St. Mike’s, and I think about all the hard work it takes to trim that turf, square those hedges and sweep every bit of rubbish out of sight. But mostly I think about how, no matter how full of life and strong something looks, it will wither and die if you transplant it into a hostile environment. Nothing can survive simply on its own. Not even St. Elmsley’s Flowers.

Mike Chopowick – April 22, 2017


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