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Grandmothers, mothers plant seeds that blossom even late into life

May 12, 2019

“The petunias were on sale. I got two flats and they need planting,” my Smithfield Grandmother said over the phone. (My brother and I grew up with “Smithfield Grandmother” and “Finnish Grandmother” or “Mummi,” as we called her).

“We can go to the steakhouse afterwards,” she said, adding, “so bring something nice to wear.”

I was in grad school in Chapel Hill at the time and we set a day for me to drive over in the used car Granddaddy helped buy before he passed away. “I don’t want my granddaughter depending on a man to drive her around,” my Grandmother had reasoned.

She wasn’t the only one who had planted the seeds of independence, discipline, meaningful livelihood, purpose, and commitment to family in me.

I’m sitting on my front porch looking over my postage-stamp size front lawn and beds. The peonies all bloomed last week. They were the same plants my mother harvested my wedding bouquets out of 22 years ago and when my husband and I moved back to North Carolina from Japan, she brought them over in plastic grocery bags, the soil damp and roots loose and ready to be set into the ground. “They need lots of sun to bloom,” Mom told me.

While my grandmother had many roles over her lifetime, one that gave her immense joy was tending to her garden. “Pleasure Gardens” was the signature she used on her checks. She was always rooting various seeds and plants in the heated breezeway between the house and garage, where she kept grow lights on to mimic tropical climates. She rooted mango trees and pineapple bushes. We sometimes joked that her electric bills might cause the company to flag the address as a potential indoor marijuana farm. She honestly could get anything to grow.

And my mother, even though not genetically related to Grandmother, carries forward a green thumb, too. It was no surprise her garden was on the Winghaven Gardeners’ Garden Tour in Charlotte not long ago. Everything she applies her imagination and handiwork to is a work of art and her garden is no exception. Most evenings when I call, my dad will pick up and say, “Is it important? Your mom’s out in the garden.” We both know how much peace she gets tending to her plants.

She has supplied a lot of plants for mine, from Hostas to Lenten roses, Soloman Seal to hydrangea. This is the first year I’ve understood that creating a lovely outdoor space is less about filling every area of unoccupied ground with riotously loud flowers, but instead subdividing those the many plants she had brought me into smaller plants, standing back and looking over the entire bed, then moving things around, even removing some plants to create space and definition, a color palette and variety of leaf and dimension. In my fifties, with three teenagers who are now more self-sufficient, there is the time to sit back and look, reflect, and discern.

There is no question that my mother operated at a scale above many of the mothers of my friends. Was that because she was a first generation immigrant or was it just because that’s how she was? It’s not important to understand why. Details that may convey why I say that is remarkable include that she spoke five languages (Finnish, Swedish, English, German and some French), baked her own bread, made most of my clothes growing up (and my brother’s, her own and some of my dad’s). Her garden was featured in Southern Living. Her handiwork made the local papers. She was recognized in our church for her hundreds of hours of volunteer work there. She took immigrant families under wing for years – Poles, Hmong, Finns, Croatians, and others, who still keep in touch. Dozens of her friends have commented to me over the years how much they appreciated the meals, homemade bouquets and ways she ministered to them during difficult times. Even now she delivers meals to members of her Sunday School class who are shut in.

Here I sit, on this Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, as blue birds, cardinals, finches and jays peck my lawn. I am overlooking my garden, thinking of the things both concrete and metaphorical, I have learned to plant and prize under her guidance and with her love. I am fortunate, I know. I am very, very fortunate.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who seed so much we cannot see until we are almost too old to thank them for it. And Happy Mother’s Day especially to my own mom.

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