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