In My Mother’s Garden

A flower prompts a memory.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTOPHER REID

After April rains, I always check the soil in the tiny space between the fence and our driveway. “You can’t see them at first,” I told my husband as I wiped the dirt from my hands. “But they’re coming.”

The little brown points, camouflaged by soft dirt, were small bumps. Spring was just starting here in upstate New York. But they should bloom by Mother’s Day, I mused.

Suddenly I remembered the day I first met lilies of the valley…and so much more. I saw myself, a little girl sprawled across the bed, watching her mother at her mirror, fastening her hair into a French twist. With envious dexterity, Mother held her tresses with one hand and reached for one of the hairpins she held between her lips with the other. Magically, the red locks complied and were locked into place with a cloud of hairspray. My own hair was pixie-short then. Will I ever have anything in common with her? I doubted it.

To me, our backyard was a place to play on the swings. Apparently, I had missed the whole point.

Almost done, Mother pulled open a drawer, and I heard bottles clanking until she found just the right one. Removing the cap, she turned her head coyly to spray a little of its contents behind each ear.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Jungle Gardenia,” she replied. “Do you want to smell it?” I nodded and, sliding care-fully off the chenille bedspread, hopped over. “Give it a sniff,” she said, turning her neck my way. I tried, unclear what I was sniffing for. In fact, before this incident, I didn’t remember ever having paid attention to the smell of anything. She noticed my confused face and, taking my wrist, gently squirted on a little Gardenia. Mother showed me how to rub my arms together to spread it. I was like Helen Keller being introduced to water by Anne Sullivan, discovering a new world—one of smells. “So, do you like perfume?” she asked.

“Proff-room?” I said.

“No, per-fume,” she corrected.

“Pee-fume!” I declared. She started to laugh, then thought better of it. “Gardenias are flowers and have a nice smell,” she corrected. “Let’s go for a walk.”

To me, our backyard was a place to play on the swings and in the sandbox. Apparently, I had missed the whole point. Hold-ing my hand to keep me attentive, my mother showed me the property from her point of view. I was astounded to learn that the trees and the bushes all had their own names and stories. They even had their own preferences, just like I did.

Pointing at the bank of lilacs crowding our boundary fence, she told me their story. “Our first neighbor was a botanist, and he planted all these different varieties. See? These are pale violet.” She reached up and pulled down a branch from another bush. “These over here are a dark purple. They don’t smell as good, though, do they?” For the second time that day, my sniffer got a workout. She was right. Pulling down another branch as we moved along, she asked, “What color are these?”

“White,” I replied. “They don’t smell as good, either.”

“No, they don’t.”

All of a sudden, I was eager to explore more. I looked at the pile of rocks closer to the river. “What are those?”

Mother guided me down to our rock garden, which was filled with an army of Lilliputian white blooms. “These are lilies of the valley,” she said. She plucked one stem and placed it in my hands. We examined the little bells that rang silently and enjoyed their sweet odor. Mother pulled a few weeds around the plants. “They need room for their feet to spread,” she said.

Inside my shoes, I wiggled my toes. Are flowers like people?

As we continued our tour, Mother showed me the gangly sprouts beside our little pear tree. “These will be peonies,” she told me. “Grandma dug them up from her house in Pittsburgh and gave them to us.” In the summer, I would return and watch with fascination as the fat, waxy petals opened and dripped with their own special perfume.

I almost trod on some unobtrusive little blue-blossomed plants. “Watch out,” she warned.

“Why? What are they?”

“These are called forget-me-nots. My nephew Paul planted them here.” Mother squatted down, gently picked a little bunch, and placed them securely in my tiny hands. “Don’t forget me,” she pleaded softly.

I won’t,” I promised again, so many Springtimes after that early lesson. I lifted my head, mused at my poor luck at nurturing forget-me-nots, and was even more grateful to the lilies of the valley for popping up on their own every year—in time for Mother’s Day. “These little bells won’t let me!”


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