My mother was an artist but she died before I was old enough to recognize that. A primary location for her to practice her art was her garden. She and Daddy had bought a bigger house and the vacant lot attached, so Mamie (what most people called my mother) decided she had swatter’s rights to use it as she chose. During the last months of her pregnancy with me, she planted hundreds of iris corms and jonquil bulbs, sitting on an old pillow and sliding down the inclining slope of the yard. Her intention, which she carried out, was to turn that vacant lot into a magnificent garden of her own design.
At the very center of her garden stood a terra cotta bird bath. From that focal point fanned out a series of ever-widening circles made of rocks varying in size from near boulders to stones that could fit into her hand. Weeds were not allowed to grow around any of these border rocks. Within the first circle, surrounding that bird bath, were pinks that covered the entire ground area. The next circle was somewhat wider and contained special varieties of jonquils with multi-colored centers; these were spaced more openly to allow the best viewing and the best growing conditions for the bulbs. To maintain this spaciousness, Mamie had to dig up and discard bulbs every few years, a chore she never seemed to resent since the result of such tedium was the beauty she craved. Surrounding this middle bed was the largest circle completing the central bedding projects. Within it were planted gorgeous rose bushes in carnelian reds, egg yolk yellows and sunshine oranges.
A second bordering system, made up of long, rectangular beds in which annuals were grown from seed, ran parallel along the foundation of our house and lot line for the adjacent house. Mamie objected to buying bedded plants, I suspect not to save money but because she loved to watch seeds send up tiny shoots that she eventually separated with her own hands. Her pride of birthing and mothering was involved in this process. In one of her last letters to me, she wrote about her love for all the little grammar school children she taught when their regular teachers were sick. In that letter, she said “Wish I could have had more children–However I don’t believe my love for eleven would or could have been less intense than my love for two.”
In any event, these two long edges of her garden were quite a show at the height of summer. Seemingly at random but actually meticulously placed, every imaginable flower was in full bloom: tough zinnias with their scratchy stems; brilliant marigolds smelling acrid even before they were cut and taken inside; cosmos, dahlias, daisies of every variety; smaller things like sweet william and alyssum, baby’s breath, ageratum, dwarf marigolds, tiny zinnias, blue phlox, button chrysanthemums. At the end of the bed that ran the length of the yard along our property line grew the strangest and most wonderful of all Mamie’s flowers–or so they seemed to me. They were called spider lilies. They had no leaves and the blossom was at the top of a very tall single stalk. It was deep fuchia and oriental in appearance, with long slender tendrils, each quite distinct from the other. At the center were tiny stamen with fuzzy black ends. I was fascinated by them, partly because they had no leaves and partly because they were so airy. After I left Alabama for Minnesota, I looked unsuccessfully at every nursery in Minneapolis and found no such species of lily. Salespeople tried to convince me that there was no such variety, that I had learned a regional name for some major lily. I never believed them and was delighted to find, while touring the Duke University Gardens on a visit to my sister, spider lilies in full bloom. Their spell over me was rekindled and I felt a painful twinge remembering my mother, kneeling beside her bed of them, cultivating the dirt around them to prolong their blooming period and to make them feel more loved.
Our back yard had its own blueprint for larger bushes that also bloomed: hydrangeas in ice blue against the entire width of our house; bridal wreath along the lot line; crepe myrtle at the alley, filled to overflowing with magenta blossoms encased in tight little green pods until just the moment before springing open. Another of my favorite flowers grew in the back gardens. Around the biggest oak tree, Mamie planted snowdrop bulbs. She said they hardly ever did well for her, but a few survived the damp winters and numerous squirrels who loved the taste of their young pale green leaves. They bloomed in February as the true harbingers of spring. I watched for them all through January, going out back and turning over a few leaves my mother scrupulously kept over them both to hide them from the squirrels and to keep them warm. Finally the day would come when I’d see the first tip peeping up from the earth. When that day came, Mamie always let me be the one to remove the leaves and put the first water lovingly on the ground from a kitchen milk pitcher. When they were in full bloom, I would sit for long stretches, drawn to the perfectly-marked drop of green in the center of each scallop of each bloom. I think they felt special because they were the only flower we grew that was green and also because the flowers hung their heads in what I deemed to be shyness.
As soon as I knew about saving money, I began to reserve portions of my small allowance. Then, two months before Mamie’s birthday on September 17th, I’d look through the fancy iris catalogue, choose one specimen variety and proudly send off my seven or eight dollars to buy a single corm. She’d never bred iris until I began to give them to her. The hundreds that lived all down our hillside were plain whites, deep purples, sky blues, and lemon yellows fringed in brown. They may have been the only things I ever gave my mother that entirely pleased her. Each year my single specimen was planted immediately with full attention in a bed made specially for the collection that began with a jet black variety called “ebony night.”
In the course of growing up and coming to terms with myself as a separate person from my mother, I rejected many customs and objects dear to her. My rebellion never forced me, however, to turn away from gardening or to dampen my deep love for flowers growing in the ground. I have always put something into dirt in the summers in Minnesota, if only into large pots on an apartment porch or in a particularly sunny window. Currently, I own my own home, the front yard of which has not a single blade of grass. It’s just annuals and perennials. The back yard is all garden except for a small swatch of grass my realtor told me I needed to keep for the time when I or my executor must sell the house. Mostly my garden is untidy; I tend to put things where the spirit moves me. But when I’m on my knees with my hands in the soil, I often think of my mother and feel a preternatural connection with her because of our need to be close to flowers. And one perenniaI favor out front is spurge with its faint green blooms that come before it becomes just feathery green leaves that last till heavy frost.