I admire old hands for the work they have done; the experience they convey. I admire the wrinkled skin and the dark age spots. The knobby knuckles and the long, thin bones that lead to the wrist – standing out like spokes on a bike.
Ralph Cooper’s hands are such as these. Eighty-six years old. Wizened and wise.
On a recent November afternoon – the brilliant sun a source of warmth – Mr. Cooper’s hands were my teacher. We sat amongst the thousands of plants, shrubs and young trees that make up his beloved nursery just off Parklane Road and he taught me how to graft. To take a small sprig of a plant and attach it to a larger plant.
“I’ve had plenty of experience doing it,” his said, his blue eyes gleaming. “That’s what my aunt wanted me to learn how to do and I did it.”
That was some 70 years ago when, as a teenager, Mr. Cooper’s aunt, who lived in Shandon, called and asked him if he wanted to come to her house to learn to graft plants. He went, he said, because it was much better than working at his father’s mercantile – called “Pap’s Store” – where he spent hours hauling heavy sacks of sugar and meal out to bootleggers’ automobiles.
Come again, Mr. Cooper?
His blue eyes sparkled.
“Oh yeah. Sugar, meal and fruit jars. We could sell it to the bootleggers as long as we took down the license plates of the cars. I’m sure we had to turn that in. But of course, they’d switch out the plates before they got to us.
“So when my aunt called and said did I want to come see how she grafted camellias, I went. And when she called a year later and wanted to know if I wanted to learn how to root azaleas, I went. That’s why I say I got started in the nursery business when I was 14 years old.”
Now Mr. Cooper did a few other things in between his teenage years and running a full-time nursery. He served in the military. He attended Clemson University. And he worked at the South Carolina State Hospital on Bull Street, where he met his wife, Ellen.
Come again, Mr. Cooper?
Mr. Cooper leaned forward in his chair.
“Now I’m gonna tell you about that,” he said, patting my knee.
“I was in the payroll office,” he said.
“And I was in the administration building,” Mrs. Cooper said. “He had to bring the paychecks up to my office to be signed. We sat at a small table and we were rubbing knees and oh, that’s when it all began.”
“Yep, it was a little short table,” Mr. Cooper said, “and that’s when it all began.”
The Coopers were married at the Woman’s Club on Devine Street in 1953. They settled on family property – not far from “Pap’s Store” and where the nursery is today. They built a brick home where they raised three children.
And while Mr. Cooper continued to work for the state, he worked with his plants, too.
“Ralph didn’t know a persimmon from a wild onion,” Mrs. Cooper joked.
But he sure learned.
“He would come home on his lunchbreak and sit in the dirt pile with his suit and tie on, potting up azaleas,” Mrs. Cooper said.
“That’s right,” he said. “We’d haul gallon cans from the kitchen at the state hospital. They were just piled up over there. All the time I was rooting azaleas. Then we got too many of them. We had so many of them that we had to start doing something with them. So, we’d carry ’em in the back of the station wagon down to Dentsville and sell ’em by the side of the road. Then, we put a little sign out in our yard.”
And then, Mr. Cooper retired from his work with the state and Cooper’s Nursery blossomed.
“He didn’t fish or golf,” Mrs. Cooper said, “but this became his pastime and then it became his life.”
Some 50 years later, the nursery – an institution among Columbia’s gardening community – is going strong.
But not so much Mr. Cooper.
While he has not smoked a day in his life, he has pulmonary fibrosis and has lost one lung. A portable oxygen tank aids the work of his surviving lung.
Sitting underneath a large, green and white umbrella, surrounded by young magnolias, hollies, and flats of pansies, he told me he loved the sunshine and not to worry about the yellow jackets buzzing around. He struggled for air, adjusting his breathing apparatus, and he took a sip of water.
He told me about his family – including five grands and 12 great-grands. And his many, many customers. In fact, generations of them.
“Our customers,” he said, choking up, “they’re like family. I’m glad I’m still able to sit out here and see all the people.”
Tears rolled down his face.
“It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last,” he said, wiping them away with a white handkerchief.
I asked Mr. Cooper if he was ready for me to leave; I didn’t want to upset him.
“No,” he said, “I appreciate you coming.”
So I stayed put for a little while longer.
He talked about his son, Glenn, and grandson, Casey, running the show now. He’s appreciative, but frustrated with his inability to work alongside them.
“I can’t do anything but tell them what to do, so I sit here and tell ’em what to do ’cause I can’t stay in the house.”
We talked about the advent of technology. How it affected his work.
“I gave it all up when they went to the electric typewriter. I don’t use those cellphones either. Too complicated.”
We talked about the secret to his long marriage. He looked at Mrs. Cooper and smiled. “She’s feisty and I ain’t.”
We talked about the most important piece of advice he has for green thumbs. “You got to remember to water. Most folks don’t water enough.”
And we talked about his customers again, only to be interrupted – by a customer, Perri Smoak.
“You might not remember me, Mr. Cooper, but I remember you.”
Mr. Cooper gathered his strength, rose in his chair and gave Ms. Smoak a hug.
More tears fell.
Another customer called Mr. Cooper a “legend” and “a gentleman.”
“I love all the people,” he said. “The customers. Everybody is so good. We don’t have any bad ones.”
But plenty of loyal ones, including Robin Campbell, who introduced me to Mr. Cooper by way of an email after a recent visit she had with him.
“Yesterday I went to Cooper’s Nursery on Parklane to purchase cedars … I’ve been a customer for many years. Thirty? The elder Mr. Cooper is a fount of horticultural knowledge and is in declining health … He uses oxygen now and enjoys sitting outside under the tall pine trees. So peaceful. Mrs. Cooper said he had never been sick before, except for a headache. She laughed and said it was probably on the day they married. I reminded Mr. Cooper of when I was a newlywed. He called to let me know that my check for gardenias had been returned for insufficient funds. I took the cash to him right away and have been a customer ever since. He said he used to let customers take their plants and mail their checks later when he first started the nursery.”
Ms. Campbell also said another thing. Perhaps, as things are now, the most important thing.
“Mr. Cooper loves visits by customers.”
So don’t delay.
If it’s a sunny day, you’ll find Mr. Cooper sitting in his chair underneath the green and white striped umbrella. He’ll likely be wearing a wide-brimmed hat his daughter gave him. He’ll probably get up to give you a hug and tears may fall. If he’s feeling strong enough, and his wise old hands are willing, he may even teach you how to graft.
But I can guarantee you his blue eyes will gleam and he’ll be glad you came.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.