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Life lessons in a signature flower

Lou DeCaro lives in Wading River. The other day I went to Home Depot for a gallon of paint and brought home $50 worth of dahlia bulbs instead. I should have known something was amiss when I started thinking about my childhood in Deer Park while I was perusing the cactus, spider, and dinner-plate varieties on the store display. I was 9 years old when we moved to Deer Park, considered the capital of the dahlia trade on Long Island. When I first saw what a dahlia bulb looked like, I thought it was a potato. Our next-door neighbor was planting one in the spring of 1961. My relationship with Mr. Baldwin was not unlike Dennis the Menace's relationship with Mr. Wilson. Mr. Baldwin's property resembled an arboretum. He had flowers growing everywhere, and his lawn was absolutely perfect. One day I hit a whiffle-ball onto that lawn. I considered hopping the three-foot chain-link fence that separated our properties, but before I could, Mr. Baldwin came out of his house, picked up the plastic ball, and walked back inside without saying a word. I was dumbfounded. At 9, I didn't have the courage to ask him for the ball. I simply considered it lost forever. Over the years, Mr. Baldwin amassed a sizable collection of my baseballs, softballs and footballs. One day, my curiosity got the best of me. Sitting on my back stoop, I noticed a huge flower in Mr. Baldwin's garden. Nobody seemed to be home, and I wanted to take a closer look. But just before I was about to hop the fence, Mr. Baldwin appeared out of nowhere, carrying a rake. I quickly said hello, then asked him what kind of flower it was. He answered after a short pause and did something I never saw him do before. He smiled. Some time later Mr. Baldwin helped me get a job on a farm. Mrs. Tippett had grown dahlias in Deer Park for as long as anyone could remember. She treated her bulbs with the same care a mother bird tends her eggs. She taught us how to dig the bulbs from the ground with a pitchfork, arrange them in straw baskets, and neatly place them in the basement of her farmhouse. She paid us 50 cents a basket, inspecting each one. If anything, I learned the difference between a dahlia bulb and a potato. The last time I saw Mr. Baldwin was in 1973, the day I got married. Dressed in my tuxedo, I walked over to the fence to see what was growing in his garden. After a few minutes, Mr. Baldwin came out of his house carrying an old box. It was full of balls, the same balls I considered lost forever many years ago. "Here are some balls to play with when you have a son," he said in a frail voice. "I hope he hits them straighter than you did," he added with a smile. Mr. Baldwin and Mrs. Tippett would be pleased to know my dahlias are doing just fine.


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