A Reflection on Home during the Pandemic

Julia Zhang

The misty day did not stop Mrs. Klingebiel’s dahlias from blooming. Her garden was a combination of all the bright colors and with every turn came a new discovery. Some of the dahlias were big as a ball and glorious as fireworks, with their petals embracing each other; some were more refined and serene, like yellow water lilies with rose-tinted edge; others were white and pristine, with succulent petals and leaves, absorbing the golden sun. 

Mrs. Klingebiel’s hands were never resting, always clipping and trimming here and there. “That one’s pretty!” A dahlia with yellow and red stripes caught my eyes. “Oh that one’s dying — you see the petals shriveling a little on the edge there?” She clipped the flower down and gave it to me. She has too many dahlias. “You can take some back to your dorm if you’d like.” Then she cut me some more. 

Dahlias are short-living flowers once you put them in water. They won’t last very long on the stems, either, since Mrs. Klingebiel is such an observant gardener. They are not fragrant but rather have a scent of fresh grass if you take off your mask and take a deep breath with your face buried in the flowers. But when they blossom, they give it all and take in the world — as if all they’re living for is that moment of joy. 

As the first frost came, we had to cut them all down. “It’s so sad,” she said, and she was genuinely sad. 

“Well,” pondered Mrs. Klingebiel when addressing why she grows hundreds of dahlia plants in her garden, “what else can you do?” She tends the flowers for many years, always selecting the most beautiful and strong plants for the years to come. 

Dahlias are not common in China. “What are dahlias?” I asked Mrs. Klingebiel last spring when Zoom and emails were still our main source of communication. She picked up her computer and walked around the house, showing me the countless flowerpots on the floor. It was going to rain so she had to carry all of them inside. “Oh they are big and beautiful!” She said, “If you come back to school in the fall I’ll show you around! I’m gonna mark you down here on my list! Julia… dahlias.” She scribbled enthusiastically. 

Home for me during the pandemic has always seemed so far away. The city of Beijing, where I grew up and where all my beloved family members reside, is on the other side of the world. And the chaos of the pandemic just pushes it further out of sight. But if anyone looks closely, they can always see that mellow yellow house that marks the end of the campus, with a kind lady who tends a ridiculous amount of dahlias, and her little terrier named Toto. Some things just never change; home, however you define it, is one of them, and it is always there no matter what.