On Easter Sunday we drove to the city to spend it with precious cousins. The day was beautiful, the temperature just right, and the winding drive through Virginia back roads was long enough that once we were into the second hour, Mr and Mrs Chatty ran out of things to say. This might not have happened had we not just taken a somewhat shorter drive down these same back roads the day before, but once we were nestled in the car-cocoon of silence, the tiny emotional crack in my heart had a chance to split wide open and I began to yearn for my mama.
How her eyes would light up when I'd step through the door with my golden sunshine bouquet. Each enthusiastic greeting was completely sincere - as if it were the first time anybody had ever given her daffodils. I understand that. Every year, when they begin to open up along my lane, I feel like there has never been a flower before and now there is this swath of gold. There really is no flower quite like the daffodil.
She and I would sit with the bouquet between us and sniff its Easter scent. We'd touch each outer petal - the perianth - and praise it. We'd run fingers around the rim of the cups. We would discuss the color, the fleshy texture, the vivid eyes of the small flat ones. We would sigh. One of us would say "Oh how I love daffodils." The other would say "Oh, me too. They're my favorite flower."
Which is not exactly true since when the roses are in bloom, they are my favorite flower, and the pansy! oh my - who doesn't love a pansy? And stocks, with their clove scent. And gladiolas! Be Glad! And the snapdragon! How fruity they smell. They were the ubiquitous cut flower in bouquets sent to mothers of new babies back in my childhood, in my southern town. I can still remember Mama, in bed with the new baby in one arm and me, snuggled up close, beneath her other arm as she showed me how to pinch the sides of the blossom and make the dragon open and close its mouth. Imagine that! A puppet flower!
It's odd that Mama didn't grow many daffodils since she had the greenest of green thumbs and could push a stick in the ground and a few weeks later it would blossom. She was country born and bred - but at a time when country was actually within walking distance of town. She grew up in the tenant house down the slope from her grandmother's farm - not 2 miles outside of Johnstown PA - and walked to school all her life - in town. Her dad was not a farmer - he was a mechanic - and an inventor - but her mother certainly had many farm girl skills. According to Mama, her own mother didn't want anybody in the kitchen so Mama didn't learn to cook. I say "according" because Mama wasn't at all above inventing a better story than the real one if it suited her. Neither did my utterly delightful mother-in-law. In fact, I once caught Grandma (M-i-L) in an outright fabrication and called her on it - to which she replied, "I know it's not true but it makes the story so much better!"
Well. I utterly adored both of those women - Grandma running a close second only to Mama - who really was the pinnacle, the shining star, the most beloved woman in my life. I was doubly blessed. Come to think of it - neither of them ever bragged about their cooking - and Mama would go so far as to look up with tears in her eyes when Daddy complained about one of her odd meals and say "You knew I wasn't a cook when you married me!"
I don't actually know if she really was barred from the kitchen as a girl or if her sisters did learn from their mother to become good cooks or if she just hated cooking or if she was too busy dreaming of her next painting to pay attention to cooking. We always had free reign in the kitchen so long as we cleaned up after ourselves. She assigned meal preparation to her daughters as quickly as they grew interested in it and by the time the last one had moved out, Daddy had retired and they ate reheated canned stuff in front of the nightly news.
Springtime memories of Mama all seem to pivot around naughty girl experiences: Skipping church to walk along the James River, where, she declared, "I'm sure God can hear our prayers just as easily as in church." Or maybe taking a day off from school just to go walk the paths of Maymont Park. Or a lunch in a restaurant - an extravagance in those days when restaurant meals were for special occasions only.
For all that Mama grew up in the country - she wasn't much of an outdoors girl. What she loved to do was paint - and draw - and mold things with clay. My house is full of her artwork and I have only a tiny sampling. That was her life when she wasn't ferrying around 4 girls; to music lessons, school functions, rehearsals or interesting sites around the city. As only a come-here can - she explored her city constantly, tracking down parks and tiny museums and finding tours of local industries that gave away free samples. She honored where she lived more than anyone I ever knew.
But the most precious springtime memory I have of Mama is of the day we planted gladiolas - a day I wrote down years ago in an essay called Love in the Garden - and here is the important part - the bit about Mama and how much she wrapped me in love in the springtime in the garden:
... when I seek love, and not just romance, in the garden I harden back to an afternoon - probably April, likely I was 8, and home from school on one of those oh, so precious and rare days when Mama would let me skip school for a time-out day. Mama was planting gladiolas. “GLAD- iolas” I thought. Glad to be out of school. Glad to be digging in the dirt. Glad to have Mama all to myself. In my memory there are no other people on earth. The flat round corms, like turbans or the crown on one of the kings in the Christmas crèche, some of them with last year’s ghost shape still on top. The new ones that were a little more golden colored than the ones who had spent time in the ground in August, fattening for the following spring, feeling smooth against my fingertips. But most of all I remember how loved I felt as we talked quietly, easily, unhurriedly, and prepared, as gardeners have done since the beginning of time, for summer’s bounty. When I plant gladiolas now, I always feel that warmth of Mama’s love washing around me.