I came to this realization while hacking away at the trumpet vine that ate my house. The more I hacked, the better I felt, and I figure that’s got to mean something.
Twelve years ago, when my husband and I moved into our modest little tract house, the back yard was manicured. It was pristine. Three lilac bushes filled the yard with their heavenly fragrance. An enormous mulberry tree sheltered the nests of hummingbirds and mourning doves. There were no dandelions in the lush, green lawn. There was pea gravel with no landscape bark in it, and areas of landscape bark unsullied by pea gravel. All this was watered by automatic drip irrigation that actually worked. On the north side of the house, there was a trumpet vine.
You could see the trumpet vine from the kitchen window. It climbed coquettishly up a white plastic trellis.
The previous owner of the house told me she started it as a cutting from her grandparents’ garden. She had planted it right after her grandmother passed away. She wanted to make sure I would take care of it always, and I said I would.
That was a mistake.
The trumpet vine knew it was invincible. It knew how guilty I would feel If I dug it up, cut it down, or set it on fire.
Oh, how I wanted to set it on fire.
Trumpet vines assert their dominance in several ways. They grow long curly tendrils that whip themselves around vertical objects. They grow sneaky underground suckers that pop up yards away from the original trunk. They have gluey little fingers that stick to walls and tree trunks and won’t come off, no matter how hard you pull. And to top it off, these guerilla tactics are camouflaged by an exquisite profusion of flame-colored flowers. They worm their way into any available crack or crevice, kind of like guilt. They push, seduce, demand, pout, flirt, and generally take advantage of people-pleasers like me.
Within three years, the trumpet vine had swallowed up the plastic trellis and a good portion of the wall that held it. After five years, the neighbors were at my door demanding that I cut off the snakelike tendrils that had escaped the yard and were heading for their bathroom window. I made a few half-hearted attempts to control the thing, but life tends to get in the way sometimes. Unlike the previous homeowner who apparently had lots of time to pristine-ify the yard, I had a full-time job, a part-time job, two elderly parents, two horses, several dogs, a cat, and a brand-new husband that needed attention as well.
But those are just lame excuses. After twelve years of benign neglect, the trumpet vine had engulfed the entire north side of the house.
One afternoon last month, our Bordeeler (half Border Collie, half Blue Heeler, all trouble) began to bark hysterically at something in the kitchen.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “Mouse."
Now, I may be a pushover, but I’m an old farm girl. I’ve successfully evicted snakes, skunks, and poisonous spiders from my property. I can deal with a mouse. I slowly opened the cabinet doors and peered into the compartment under the sink.
It was not a mouse. It was worse than a mouse. It was the trumpet vine. It had pushed its way through a gap in the baseboard and was oozing out into the kitchen!
It must have sensed that I have absolutely no boundaries and was planning a coup. It had crawled under the outside wall along the plumbing, and was clearly aiming to strangle all of us as we slept.
The trumpet vine had to go. I got out the shovel, clippers, nippers, trimmers and saws. I started hacking away at the trumpet vine, berating myself for letting it get this bad. As I hacked, I began to get angry.
I wasn’t angry at the vine. The vine was just a plant. I was angry at the part of me that promised a total stranger I would be nice to her grandmother’s invasive, obnoxious, intrusive trumpet vine for as long as we both shall live.
I realized that the trumpet vine was only one symptom of a much more dangerous malady. I had spent my whole life remaking myself in the image of everyone else. From the time I started using my middle name in third grade (so the girls with good hair and exotic names would like me) to the twenty years I wasted, married to the wrong guy because I was afraid to wait for a better match.
In my desperation get girls to like me and guys to date me, I pretended to be an atheist. I pretended to smoke marijuana. I pretended to read stuff by Ayn Rand, and after pretending to enjoy it, I pretended to agree with it. I pretended to like Richard Nixon, for God’s sake! From third grade on, I learned to make Amy invisible. I pretended to be politically this, religiously that, philosophically the other thing. I reinvented myself so often in the pursuit of other people’s approval, I had completely forgotten who I really was. I was a blank slate for others to write on. An empty patch of dirt in which I invited other people to plant their obnoxious, invasive, intrusive seeds.
So there I was, beginning the second half-century of my life, all tangled up in someone else’s grandmother’s trumpet vine.
Six hours later, my back was sore, my arms were scraped, and my hands were bloody. I had plant debris down my shirt, in my socks, and stuck in my hair. I felt great. I could see not only the north side of my house, but the rest of my life, cleared of the entanglements of others’ expectations.
And there, against the concrete block wall, was the stub of Not My Grandmother’s Trumpet Vine. It is already growing back. But, like all the other relationships in my life, it will grow back on my terms.
(This essay was actually published here in 2011. But I entered it in a contest that said it could not be in a contest and in a blog at the same time. So I did what any self-respecting people-pleaser would do, and took it down. As for the contest, it lost. So... it's back. Take that, silly contest persons who don't know a good trumpet vine story when you see it!)