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For the longest time, I hated azaleas. They represented the heralding of spring, and while as a young girl I loved spring because it brought Easter and my birthday, it also brought the agony of pollen allergies. Bryan Park and its Azalea Festival usually meant that my sister, dad, and mom would all go and stroll among the flowers, taking pictures, enjoying warm spring air, while I would remain in the car, eyes swollen shut and red with itching and scratching.

I loved the clouds of color, the abundance of it. But because I glimpsed it all from the other side of the car window glass, I felt like these flowers were only put on this earth to torment me. To show me the spring warmth, the rebirth, the colors, the fragrance, the bees buzzing, all the wonderful Easter-like fun that everyone else could have except me. I was left to sniff, scratch, wheeze and suffer while everyone else frolicked. To make a long story short, azaleas, and anything associated with azaleas, the festival, Bryan Park, etc. all represented one big pity party for little ol’ Née Neé.

Bryan Park was a fun place though. Our dad would take my sister and I down to the rocks, the river rocks that were stacked everywhere, water running over them. We’d spend hours, long spring and summer days crawling and climbing over them. It was the closest thing to hiking that we suburbanite girls would get as children. I still remember my dad saying repeatedly, “You fall in……you get wet.” One time I did, and he was right. I spent the rest of the humid day smelling like slimy, decaying moss. I didn’t mine though, it was fun to finally fall in. We’d spent so many summers crawling over rocks and being scared of the water, wondering “What would happen?” so to finally fall in felt more like a relief. Coming to terms with your fear.

Today, I’ve come to terms with my allergies (the fog of Benadryl is something I live with three months of the year) and I love azaleas. One day you’re looking at a wall of green, and miraculously, overnight, it explodes into a wall of color. Whole fireworks of color.

Mature azaleas are just amazing. I remember one house near ours on Forest Hill Ave. in Richmond, on 42nd Street that just exploded with color every spring. Hot pink, red, white. Light pink azaleas are wimpy, they must be strong, bold blooms to really stand out. And if the plants are old, there’s no stopping them.

Just the other day I saw a yellow azalea bush. Wow, this made all those forsythia look like an afterthought. Huge, billowing blooms, with wings spread so wide they looked like they might take off like butterflies. I was mezmerized. On that same walk I passed a house I had passed dozens of times before, but this time the whole front was covered in color. What I had thought were just plain ol’ hedges turned out to be white, red, and hot pink azaleas, screaming for attention. That’s what I love about azaleas. The surprise of them. Who cares that they’re only pretty for a little while? In that little while they live an entire lifetime. The surprise of them is the thing. They don’t hang around forever like geraniums or marigolds. They’re here for a short, vibrant, loud, time. Then they’re gone. Like “Boo!” blink and you might miss them. “Surprise! Azaleas!”

And I admit, they make me miss the Azalea Festival, and Bryan Park, and my dad, and my sis, and even that dank, mossy smell of the rocks. The demons of my childhood are now dear old friends.

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