My mom had two green thumbs. Every March and April—while the snow was still melting (or accumulating, depending on the year) and icy Wisconsin winds still whipped through naked trees—she’d sit at the kitchen table and ponder her backyard domain. She’d assess the previous year’s flowerbeds, sketch new designs, and plot the placement of perennials on her wish list. As soon as the ground had thawed and the overnight temperatures had warmed, she was out planting, pruning, and transplanting. And that’s where she stayed—day after day, until the leaves changed color. From spring to the onset of winter, Mom delighted in what her green thumbs and the ground brought forth.
My mom’s first garden—at least, the one I remember—was a vegetable garden. It ran along the backyard fence line of my parents’ first house, a three-bedroom ranch in suburban Milwaukee. Lilac bushes shaded the kitchen window, and Mom tended an array of potted plants on the patio. I’m sure there were flowerbeds, too, just not in my memory.
When my dad’s mid-career job required a move into the city, their yard shrank. A five-bedroom house, an itty bitty garage, and a parking slab left minimal room for more on the lot, but they managed to squeeze in a two-car garage, a garden that filled most of the backyard, and a couple of fruit trees in the side yard. Flowerbeds brightened the perimeters of the house and garages.
Shortly after my dad’s retirement, my parents returned to the suburbs. My mom longed for more flowers, so they ended up buying more house than they needed to get the landscape my mom wanted. Not as steady on her feet by then, she put my dad to work, planting shrubs and trees, bulbs and bare roots.
One spring she had him turn over sod for a new flowerbed near the patio. A folk-art ornament of a little girl stood in the dirt to mark the space: my mom’s “friendship garden.” In this designated flowerbed, Mom planted and nurtured a broad sampling of her favorite flowers. Then she invited friends over one by one. They’d tour the yard, “oooh” and “ahhh” in every quadrant, and then go home with a boxful of snippets and sprigs of various living things to plant and pray over in their own yards.
My parents stayed in that four-bedroom, two-story house on a 3/4-acre lot longer than was probably wise—but my mom didn’t want to give up her gardens, though they were in increasing disarray. Neither of my parents had the mobility needed to tend them anymore. Whatever came up each spring, Mom enjoyed and put in her gardening journal. Whatever didn’t come up, she mourned.
My dad was ready to give up the expansive house and yard—and all the work they entailed—years before my mom was willing to think about it. But she finally decided the stairs were more than her pained knees could take, and they moved to a condo. My oldest sister, who inherited my mom’s green thumb, transplanted a few of Mom’s favorite perennials near the condo patio, but they—like my parents—had known their best days. Mom made do with what she had—but she missed her flowers. When a health-care worker admired one of her thriving houseplants, Mom told her to take some clippings of it. Mom’s friendship garden moved indoors.
A few years later, my parents moved to an assisted living facility, and my mom’s garden went digital: my other sister set Mom’s laptop to display a slideshow of her flowers. She passed many hours watching the flowers “bloom” on the screen, each stirring happy memories. Not surprisingly, she shared her favorites with more than one visitor—and usually with an accompanying story: “Richard hated that flower—it was always in his way at the old house. …That one came from Grandma’s garden at the farm. … They told me this one was purple, but that’s the strangest purple I’ve ever seen…”
No one on the receiving end of a digital bloom could take it home to plant. No one’s garden grew new flowers because of my mom’s memories. And perhaps few recipients even realized they’d been given a gift at all. But when Mom shared her flowers—actual or virtual—she was sharing herself. Whether the color filled her yard or her screen, her flowers reflected her creativity, her tenderness, and her expertise. She delighted in her flowers and pure delight bubbles over, waiting to be shared. In her younger days, she offered friends the opportunity to enjoy new flowers and to garden, enriching their lives and her own as well. When her flowers were nothing but digitized memories, she shared what she could.
My mom’s flowers have stopped blooming—but not forever. After the long winter has passed and eternal Easter has come, she will tend a garden more expansive and full of color than ever. She will walk—and bend and squat and kneel—in richer soil than her gardens ever had. Her fingers, free from arthritic pain, will pick and prune old favorites, as well as perennials she’s never seen before. Resurrected life on a re-created earth with the Master Gardener will be full of delight, for days without end. She will have flowers to share forever.