When a Picture is Worth More Than 1000 Words

I grew up in Louisiana with a magnolia tree in my front yard. When I was a child, rarely a day went by when I wasn't in that tree. I knew every branch, every stump on the trunk, and every single route to the top. My house was just yards away, but that magnolia tree was *my* place. It was home. 

My grandmother grew up in that same house, with that same tree. I had her old room. I spent a lot of time with her as I was growing up. She taught me how to scramble eggs and shell peas. She taught me how to play 52-card pickup, chuckling at me as I, irritated, picked up the cards she had launched across the floor. She taught me to hold doors open for strangers and hold tight to your true friends.

She was hard of hearing, so you had to shout to talk to her. My friends always found it funny at first, but then I’d start laughing when they, too, had to start shouting at her. Sometimes, she just couldn’t understand you, so she’d make you spell the word you were saying. I’d say something like, “I bought a blue dress.”

“A new dress?” she’d say.

“No, BLUE!”

She’d look at me, concentrating. “Spell it,” she’d command.

“B-L-U-E. BLUE! A BLUE DRESS!”

“Oh! A blue dress! I love blue.”

I’d then carry on the conversation until I had to spell out the next word she commanded.

Years later, when she died, I remember thinking, “I don’t have to spell out my words anymore.” My heart sank, and I cried. It had been one of those things that used to make me so crazy—until I realized I’d never get to do it again. 

I live in Texas now, but I still see magnolia trees everywhere, and this is the time of year when their flowers are blooming. When I see them, I always think of home. I think of that magnolia tree at the house where I grew up, and I think of my grandmother, and I miss her terribly. 

Recently, I was preparing to photograph a magnolia at a local garden when an elderly woman approached me. 

“Aren’t they just beautiful?” she asked.

I lowered my camera and smiled at her. “Yes, I love them.”

She told me she was visiting from Washington, but she grew up in Texas and loved coming home to visit because the people in the South are nicer—and she loved to see the magnolia trees. She told me she was 92 years old and that the secret to living a long, happy life was to look for the good in everyone and everything. I'll never forget that piece of advice.

As she turned to leave, she introduced herself as Leota and asked my name.

“Nikki,” I said.

“Vicky?”

“No, Nikki,” I said louder, enunciating the N. I almost spelled it out for her, but I stopped myself.

She smiled, wished me well and walked away. 

I turned back to the magnolia tree, missing my grandmother so much in that moment I could cry, and I photographed this flower—for Leota, for my grandmother, and for me.