In Bernice Born’s courtyard garden, a narrow winding path lined with delicate columbine blooms leads to statuesque purple irises that tower over the spent violets.
Those same irises are a recurrent theme in the stack of old photos in her 78-year-old hands. Some celebrate milestones such as First Communion. Others record more ordinary days, but always the subjects pose in front of irises.
“That was the spot,” the North Side woman says with a smile. When the pretty purple flowers were in full bloom, that’s where the family gathered for photos.
Her grandmother, Anna Dzialo, was the first to grow them at her home in Torrington, Conn. Mrs. Born guesses she got them from a neighbor. In the earliest and most poignant black-and-white image, 14-month-old Bernice nestles on the grass next to her mother, Bernice Strawinski. The irises are in full bloom.
When Mrs. Strawinski married, she dug some of them out of the garden and took them to her new home in Detroit.
“It was a typical 1930s backyard, with a rock garden, lighthouse and irises by the fish pond,” Mrs. Born says.
She would cut the long-stemmed flowers and bring them to school for her teachers.That Detroit backyard was one of the inspirations that led her to gardening. Mother and daughter would tour the garden as the elder pointed out and identified the plants. The hollyhocks growing along the back fence were of special interest to Mrs. Born as a child.
“I used to pick the blossoms to make dolls,” she said. The flower was the skirt and a bud on top became the head. Spirea, pink honeysuckle, mock orange, lilacs, and purple and white violets also grew there.
When she married Ed Born, she picked white violets for her wedding bouquet and later dug a clump of irises for the couple’s new home. The flowers moved with them to Cleveland, New York, Virginia and, finally, Pittsburgh. The Borns lived in Ross and then the North Side. Why move the flowers to each house?
“They are a connection to my childhood home and my grandmother, so we just keep them going,” she says. “I get all excited when I see the buds. I love them.”
Every corner of her diminutive garden is filled with plants, but the irises take center stage in late spring.
“They are beautiful. They’ve got an unusual scent to them. On a summer evening, the whole yard smells like grape Kool-Aid.”
As we walk toward the garden gate, she stops, turns back and lifts a large pot of irises. “These are for you,” she says.
I begin to thank her but then catch myself. “Oops. You’re not supposed to thank people for plants or they won’t grow.”
Her eyes light up and she smiles ear to ear. “That’s just what my mother always said.”