Neighbor’s lasting memories keep growing

By Jeanne Guerra

She’s popping up again all over. A little earlier this spring because of our unusually warm weather. I see her in my backyard, under the neighbors’ trees, along the creeks I pass on my way out of Lochwood. She was blazing white at first, and now she is clad in delicate peach, deep purple, bright yellow, lavender and bronze.

Ruby Thornhill was the first to welcome us to our new home in old East Dallas in the mid-70s, just south of White Rock Lake. Our next-door neighbor, she immediately “took a liken’ to us as newlyweds,” providing the history of the neighborhood, and fascinating stories of our 40-year-old house, including details of the ghost she believed resided within. She liberally shared the benefit of her wisdom from living in the same area since the 1930s. Ruby was well into her seventies when we met.

Widowed many years before, Ruby spent her days doling out advice, watching over the neighborhood and tending to the largest and most beautiful irises found anywhere. (This was before the Dallas Arboretum.) They grew all around her house, beside her garage and down her driveway. Some as tall as four feet with blossoms as big as softballs. In every color, every shade, and every variety.

I would marvel at the beauty of one only to have her reach in the pocket of her worn housecoat for an old pair of scissors, cut it off and hand it to me saying, “Here, take it inside so’s you can enjoy it.”

I can’t count the number of mornings I would find a mason jar or old coffee can of fresh irises on my front porch … bouquets and bouquets of them. “Just tickles me to know someone else who enjoys their beauty,” she would say.

And enjoy them I did. I followed her to Iris Society shows and drank in their glory. I copied them in my sketchbook from the bouquets she offered, painted them from the hundreds she tended, and fell in love with their delicate beauty.

At the proper time of year, she would thin her gardens, offering me the bulbs and helping me plant them in my own yard. And each spring we would watch in excited anticipation as the first ones bloomed, always the whites.

Waiting for one particular blossom, her “special” she called it, (I never knew its formal name), would send us out daily to check the buds. This particular iris was so purple it was black, the queen of all her varieties. This one we never cut, but just sat transfixed on the lawn next to it and admired God’s creation as it gleamed in the bright sunlight and fluttered in the gentle spring breeze. Ruby had long ago forgotten its origin, but it was special to her for its uniqueness, and now special to me.

When weather threatened damaging winds or hail, we would both be out in the storm cutting armfuls of the fragile blossoms to bring them into our houses. They were our bridge, the point of friendship between two women two generations apart, and a joy to us both.

As wonderful as she was about her flowers, Ruby was set in her ways about the world. Often my husband would mow her lawn after he finished ours and she, even though a devout teetotaler Baptist, would reward him with a cold six-pack of beer. The few times I mowed her yard still produced the beer for him with the explanation that it was his mower I was usin’ and he was the man of the house. The logic still escapes me, but I accepted it as just Ruby.

The birth of our first child was a delight to our neighbor. Ruby’s only son had died many years before and her grandchildren were not close. So our son became hers, and the family photo album has a bright-eyed child and a wise old lady posing in front of irises spring after spring after spring.

We had lived there about 10 years when just before the irises bloomed one year, Ruby died. Her grandchildren gave me permission to dig up some bulbs before they sold her house. My gardens were already bursting by then, but I chose a few that were her favorites. I looked for our special black one, but I think she must have taken it with her to Heaven for it was never seen again.

A few years later, we moved to another home in East Dallas, north of White Rock Lake and I dug up dozens of the bulbs and lovingly tucked them in new beds. They still bloom about four feet tall and as big as softballs—as beautiful as when they were hers. And the white ones still bloom first. When each flower appears, I think of Ruby and her love of irises and our shared friendship that spanned a fifty-year age difference. And I thank God for His gift of life, his gift of beauty through flowers, and His gift of Ruby who, like her irises, returns to my heart each spring.

Jeanne S. Guerra is a long time East Dallas resident and writer with four novels available on She can be reached at [email protected].

Ruby with Guerra’s son, Josh, at age three. He is now 40. Photos courtesy of Jeanne Guerra