Swallowtails and Memories

Losing Mom.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

My love of gardening was infused in me by my mother. When I was a child, she got me started growing pumpkins at our California home. When I was in my early 20s, she encouraged me to plant flower beds and revive a weak rose at the tiny house I rented in Washington. Since then, I have never stopped gardening. For years we lived, prayed, loved, and laughed in each other’s gardens, municipal gardens, and on garden tours and nursery excursions.

When her garden became too difficult for her to manage, I stepped in to help. Eventually, I moved most of her plants into pots on her patio, so she could sit in a chair and tend them from a more manageable level. Her beloved rosebushes and a few perennials in a raised bed stayed where they were, still within her reach. I tended the rest.

On a lovely, sunny, warm Saturday in July, my mom spent the day in her garden doing what she loved: tending her pots. The next day she laid down for a nap. She never regained consciousness. Twenty-four hours later, she was in the presence of her Lord Jesus, new, whole, and joyful. Such sweet sorrow these days.

In the three days before her death, I kept seeing swallowtail butterflies. One each day.

In the three days before her death, I kept seeing swallowtail butterflies. Only swallow-tails, one each day. The day before her death, when she fell asleep in her home, my husband and I were on a walk and a swallowtail came right up to us and swept so close to my face that I jerked back so it wouldn’t hit me.

I wondered if there might be some significance to all these butterflies, but decided it was simply a hatch brought on by the sudden burst of warm weather and just enjoyed them.

Then every day for five days following her last breath, I saw a swallowtail flit through her garden. One day I saw two, one in each of our gardens, as I had opportunity to be in both that day. I smiled when I saw them. One landed briefly on her beloved Mr. Lincoln rosebush, then proceeded away.

The day we buried her, as the graveside service concluded, a swallowtail flew in the midst of us, swooped down toward and then over her casket, and disappeared around the side of the gravestone. I smiled as I felt her presence, understanding now how you can feel sorrow and joy at the same time.

We gardened very differently. Hers was more of a formal style with swept grounds and four feet between each of her 25 rosebushes, “for circulation,“ she would say. Mine is more closely packed with perennials crowding out weeds. Sage and ajuga grow closely beneath my roses. Overall I have a billowy English style with a perpetual layer of debris mulch.

“I like it, but can’t seem to do it,” she would say. “I need more neatness.”

She called some plants of mine “leggy” if she thought they should be fuller. “They are airy,“ I’d say, and we’d laugh. Just now I can’t hear her laugh in my mind. I hope one day it will come back to me.

And as all gardeners do, we shared plants: having plants and cuttings from her garden in my own has taken on a new meaning for me. My Alpine strawberries came from her plants. She loved the pink old-fashioned coral bells, and she always kept a pot of the red-flowering variety, which were her own mother‘s favorite. I have cuttings of both in my garden. She had Mullen chaixii Album in a large pot for years. It began to languish and she was ready for me to remove it to the compost. I always loved it and had been unsuccessful with its seeds, so I took it home and planted it in the ground, where it thrives and has doubled in size, rewarding the bumblebees with its nectar and pollen.

One day, she enjoyed standing next to my blueberry bushes and eating ripe berries right off the bushes as we talked—so much so that she bought a dwarf blueberry for a pot on her patio. This year her bushes are loaded with berries, though she’ll miss the ripening. I’m sure the blueberries in heaven are far better, anyway.

Her potted garden acquired a few treasures from my garden over the years. Her geranium Lily Lovell and lily of the valley came from my holdings, and offspring from several of my hearty geraniums bloom along the front walk to her home.

I feared that joy would leave my garden for a time after her death, but it has not. I find it a peaceful, restful place still, one in which I can smile as I think of her. I don’t think my gardening will ever be the same. I believe forevermore I’ll feel Mom’s presence in the garden, whether I’m working in mine or hers (I’ll maintain it as long as my dad remains in their home).

And I hope every summer the swallowtail butterflies will come, bringing me peace and some of her presence as God sends them my way. He sends gifts of love like that, you know.


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