My Mother’s Daughter

Every May, I am reminded that I am truly my mother’s daughter. Some dominant gene becomes activated that sends me out to survey my flower beds and think hopeful thoughts about what I might accomplish in them this year. By July, sweet hope has turned to gritty, raw survival, but in May, there is always hope. 

Spring waits for no one. Depending on the fickle Colorado weather, I am sometimes able to get out in the yard in April to cut back the dried and brittle stems of last year’s growth: purple coneflower, hostas, Annabelle hydrangeas, chrystanthemums, daisies, meadow sage, sedum, coreopsis, and all the rest. The roses–David Austins, miniatures, and assorted others–along with the tangle of clematis and honeysuckle, could be cut back earlier, but I never seem to get it done until April.

By May, the grass sprouts where I don’t want it and remains intransigently absent where I do. I know that if I do not pluck it from the flower beds, along with its evil cousin, the weed, the two will have taken over my beds by the next time I turn to look.

On my hands and knees, weeding and pulling grass, I can sometimes leave my body and hover a little above, watching the solid form of the woman so intent on her work. Sometimes she’s a wild woman, the female equivalent of Green Man, with dirt under her fingernails and bits of leaves and twigs in her hair. At other times, she is more fairy-like, an aging pixie talking to her flowers and herbs. Always, she is her mother’s daughter.

My mother grew up on a series of farms in Illinois. Her father was a dirt farmer and he was dirt poor, never owning any of the farms he worked. He was a tenant farmer. My mother worked the fields as a child, weeding in the hot summer sun. By the time she left home, she had no desire to grow vegetables, but had somehow come to love flowers.

The summers of my own childhood were spent reading books, riding my bicycle, and watching my mother work her little patch of earth. With trowel and fork, bare hands and shovel, on hands and knees or bent over at the waist, she produced flowers to rival any botanic garden. She had her favorites. Sweet William was one. And when she was older and her health prevented her from doing the hard garden work she had done as a younger woman, she still put out pots of impatiens and planted a huge, old birdbath with petunias.

As a young woman, I was first interested in houseplants, another of my mother’s loves, and we bonded over them. It took a bit of time for me to come into my own green thumb outdoors, but I am grateful that I came to be the avid tender of flower and herb beds some years before she died.  

Now I am near the age she was at in my favorite photo of the two of us. She’s clutching a cigarette, one she has yet to light, against her chest. The sun hits her short, curly, hair in a way that produces a halo effect. She’s as brown as a sparrow, thanks to the sun, and she is wearing a summer top she probably sewed herself. 

I’m next to her, my pale Irish skin sunburned, my hair pulled back and away from my face, gold hoops dangling from my ears.  She has a wise smile on her face, a smile that says yes to life, even though she’s had more reason to suffer than she ever deserved. At about thirty, I have the big, toothy grin of a woman who has recently escaped from violent circumstances and sees her life spread out before her like fields of lavendar. (Thirty years later, my smile is more like hers. I’ll probably never be as brown and wrinkled as her, thanks to sunscreen, good skin care, and an easier life. But the smile is there.)

My arm is around my mother in that photo and her right shoulder is up against my left. We could be a mother/daughter team, selling tomatoes and peppers at some farmer’s market. But, of course, that wouldn’t be us. We’d be selling flowers.

copyright 2009 by Melanie Mulhall

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13 Responses to “My Mother’s Daughter”

  1. tammy Says:

    Oh Melanie. What a lovely, sweet story. You made me able to SEE the picture of you and your mom in my head.

    Here in Richmond, I’ve planted my veggie garden and plucked the first of my lettuce yesterday. It was a sublime experience even for an “aging pixie…”

    😉

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Tammy,

      I think I saw some of that lettuce on your blog and it was almost enough to make me wish I grew vegetables! But then, I have two baby rabbits in my yard at the moment and I’m not sure lettuce would survive. In fact, the bunnies and I may need to have a talk before the summer is over.

  2. Shari Phiek Says:

    What a lovely tribute to your mother. I agree with Tammy, I could “see” the picture you describe in my mind’s eye.

    Each year, I dutifully make my trip to the local nursery, plant them in the flower beds and garden only to watch them wither away within a few short weeks. How you can make anything grow in our temperamental Colorado weather amazes me.

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Shari,

      Our Colorado weather is a bit temperamental, I agree. I often overwinter thirty geraniums indoors and when I can finally get them out on the decks, they go through a bit of shock. There are too many of them to harden them off, so it is survival of the fittest. And that is the case for everything that goes into the ground, too. I have lived in this home for 18 years now. While the home was already nine or ten years old when I moved in, there was still a good amount of landscaping to be done. Some trees I planted back then are huge now. Others have come and gone. The blue spruce have long since overtaken some of my early flower plantings, but other things–like my grandmother’s hostas–were planted in places that have allowed them to return every year. Like one-time friends, some flowers come and stay; others come and go.

      Keep at it. Oh . . . and it doesn’t hurt to talk sweetly to them.

      Melanie

  3. Margaret Pevec Says:

    I too appreciate the sweet homage to your mother, Melanie. My mother also grew up on farms and after years and years in gardens, finally gave it up. She never planted many flowers or tended a flower garden…I think the hard work of vegetables was enough to last. So, I didn’t have that role model, and even though I’ve planted a flower here and there, I have little confidence in my ability to make a garden grow. Perhaps that is in my future…

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Margaret,

      You know, it’s interesting that even with my mother as a role model–or maybe because of it–I didn’t really become enamored of flowers and herbs until I was an adult. I suspect I took it all for granted as a child and adolescent. And gardening was a solitary activity for my mother. It was, I think, meditative time for her.

      As for “making” a garden grow, that is akin to “telling” God your plans. There is collaboration with nature and there is surrender.

      Melanie

  4. Rosemary Carstens Says:

    Loved this story, Melanie. It helped me “see” you better, too! I have a favorite photo of me and my mother, too. Mine was taken on a day when we went to see the comedy “Nurse Betty”–my mother taught me to love films, the old-time glamour of movie stars, and books, and until recent years we often enjoyed going to the movies together. On that afternoon, the film had just come out and they gave out paper “nurses’ hats”–we are each grinning fiendishly with a hat on our heads. It was a good day–

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Rosemary,

      I’d like to see that photo! What a treasure. It seems to me that your obvious love of books and art make you your mother’s daughter, too. Am I right?

      Melanie

  5. Drea Says:

    Melanie,

    What a beautiful and moving slice of memoir! I relished reading about the continuity that gardening provides between you and your mother. I’m a father’s daughter. I think that relating more your dad feels more distant, in a way, because of the gender difference. It was satisfying and inspirational for me to read about your connection with you mother, especially because my experience has been different.

    Drea

  6. Sue Says:

    Loved this. I’m envious of your garden. I’m afraid I missed planting season altogether. I have torn out my old garden and we’ve been building a new raised-bed near the house for a rose garden, but we still have “dirt work” to do and bring in a load of good soil. But we’ve been sidetracked on other things and now both areas are mud holes. I love the rain, but could use a week of dry!

    My mom never gardened. But my grandmother who I resemble did. Her nickname in fact was “Grandma Garden.” She could grow anything, but most of all she loved the “volunteers”! (Anything that came up on its own.)

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Sue,

      I, too, love the volunteers–most of the time. The lemon balm is ridiculous. It wants to own the yard. Even when I pull out every scrap, it returns. I’ve taken to digging some up and putting it in a big pot to keep it contained.

      I planted cranesbill geranium in an apparently unsuitable spot at one time and it died. Years later, it volunteered elsewhere. Go figure.

      Grandma Garden is a wonderful nickname. She feels like a soul sister.

  7. Claire Walter Says:

    How refreshing, in this age of self-righteous indignation, to read a nostalgic piece about a mom with a cigarette and a suntan.

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