“Is this a weed?” — “Yes.” Barely a beat of a pause before I asked again after what was likely the same plant: “is this a weed?” “Yes.” “This?” “That’s a volunteer, just stick it back in.” “This one?”, my questions were terse and came with militant conviction. Her responses kept time to the same heartbeat. Each blade of grass would be taken to task before a decision was made concerning its removal.
“That’s — yes.” She sat in the relative shade of a weeping cherry on a ninety degree day in a hot pink folding beach chair we bought in 2000, and which I am the only one to actually ever use elsewhere. Within the first ten minutes I was covered in earth, caked in sweat, and baking in the sun in a way London did not permit.
“You can’t stop at each one. You’ll learn. You’ll lose some. It’s life. That’s life in the big city, baby. Just stick ’em back in. Or we’ll be here all day” she said this as though we would not be here all day regardless, though she was calm. It was unusual to see her calm. She is frenetic, flighty, constantly multitasking, though infrequently to the exclusion of precision.
My mother, in her early sixties, was not one week home from Boston Children’s Hospital, having just undergone the second open heart surgery of her life. A congenital heart defect and one of the first corrective surgeries of its kind in the 1960s had made her a very rare — and medically, very useful — case. Emotionally, it had been a difficult journey. I can’t recall whether the bandage had yet been removed, but I can still see the black brown stitches protruding from the top of a favorite V-Neck shirt she did everything but sleep in that summer, their every outline politely chastising ‘I am an annoyance, but a necessary one. I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you’ as they grinned in their disheveled way with all the undeserved confidence of a bow on a picnic basket. They tied her to that pink chair she hated for exactly a day, after which point no one bothered to ask for a repeat as we all knew she would never do it again.
Mom is mostly “all better now”. There are still hurdles, still checks and balances, and the winter doldrums keep her cooped up inside and maddened at the lack of greenery in her beds, but she is otherwise a picture of health and the deafening silence of the summer has returned to its lively and (at times, overwhelming) banter. She has long since banished the twisting tongues of her stitches, and when they twine, invasively, back into her thoughts, we do our best to reconcile them in the landscape of our past. Her biggest regret from the experience, I am certain, was the day she was discharged — one day too soon to see the therapy dog who was scheduled to pay her a visit in the Cardiac wing. So when the opportunity came this year to contribute to a charity auction benefitting NEADS service dogs this February, if you all will forgive the pun, it was a cause close to my heart. When the organizer’s heart was set on an image of Portulaca grandiflora, I knew just which pieces to contribute.
It was a summer of lessons learned permanently, and one which lends itself to allegory, imagery, and all of the other alliterative and truistic tools I might have once used liberally. Its days left me exhausted and sometimes frustrated, its nights, seeking a strong wind to blow me dry of the sweat and the dust and the day’s stagnant heat which had settled in the skin of a caregiver, but often only left me wanting for the frustration of the day by comparison, all the while, dirt still under my nails. Between these moments, I found my place of refuge perusing our work in the midnight of the garden, which grew greater by the day.
It had been years since we had shaped earth together, her as a potter and I as an assistant, and given the naturally-stressful circumstances, it proved an equally emotionally fulfilling and taxing affair. Every summer during school’s off time during her work as a teacher, she lives outside. This is to say, every spring she says this is the year she finally “douches” the house and rennovates, and every summer puts it off until the next in favor of time in the dirt. All of the houseplants make their annual migration to the out of doors and for the first week of their annual glamping trip, it feels we own nothing. She worked in greenhouses in these interims where and when she could find work, both for the extra income and the love of it. With nowhere to go, I followed in tow. For years the knowledge distilled, also with nowhere to go. Not many other twelve year olds knew where and when to pinch a poinsettia plant, so I kept these things to myself.
Some days, she healed. Some days I think she wanted to bury herself in the dirt with the plants, mulling over and over the foreign part in her chest, the pain, staring in the mirror at the scar, uncovered more and more as she healed and for a time, seeming increasingly apparent in a converse evolution to her internal healing. Some days we saw growth. Some days, die back. Some days she made our job easy. Some days she claimed the newness of her old heart a weed.
Where many daughters can call their mothers water, mine is, if nothing else, fire — “Hell yeah, I’m hot spit”, I can hear her say as she reads this at her desk at work later today. The only specialist who could get through to her more figurative heart enough to get her to agree to the life-saving endeavor is a man who kicked the exam room door in, brandished his clipboard as a sheild, and arrived armed only with a sense of wit, intelligence, and wisdom I have not had the pleasure of seeing since in any medical professional.
I had lived in the heart of London for over a year, and though not without stimulation from the occasional adventurous, outdoorsy jaunt, my courtyard I viewed only as a further buffer between the cold iron railing and thought nothing of its potential beyond this. I feared I had forgotten the treatment she needed for lack of practice, but knew I could find it buried somewhere. I spent hours in the waiting room doodling flowers in a book I tried all too many times that week to read.
Though certainly not a religious person, watching your mother recover from having her sternum cracked open, her body having had the pleasure of a medically-induced lack of vital signs for eight hours during its second open-heart surgery can really make you think about life, the universe and everything in a way Douglas Adams might not exclusively cover with my usual and slightly contrived, go-to omniscient offering of “42”. I had finished a piece of academic work that summer which hinged not insignificantly on a play on words from a passage of 1 Corinthians 13 — a passage I felt, perhaps a little sardonically, to be among the most redundantly over-cited of them all, and to have largely lost the majority of its potency to the age of Pinterest projects and Facebook comment section debate fodder. Pairing this parallel with the walls of the cardiac ICU of a Children’s Hospital and the encroaching stress of needing to finish my eighty-page dissertation’s final edits, I think, was enough to do the job. Dying babies. Children clinging to life. Families full of hope. Nurses who are in practice more angels, keeping the strongest front in the face of the greatest trauma families can know. I was no stranger to hospitals by this point in my life, and so was well rehearsed for protocol: when you go through something like this, your brain makes you pray to something, even if you believe in nothing.
What faith I had was difficult to keep in the coming days, and even given my love of literature, had never, would never, and will never be held by a book. In the moments I escaped the small town blues for bigger city jaunts while she slept, the lines repeated in my head as if on a loop as the reds of the words turned gray and blues of them to black, just as night.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up.
There are few things more inherently prideful than a meticulously maintained garden’s flowers, especially one at the hand of a master gardener whose every free moment had been spent in the dirt since, I’m convinced, she could crawl. We watch the products of this effort unfold and scream their colors against carefully-crafted backdrops in our homes and yards the world over, and have participants in this silent pissing contest between neighbors and friends for centuries. With the falling light its blooms should have seemed less impressive, but they were all the more captivating. We are keen to work the garden by day as is typical, but never by night when it is cool and therefore in many ways more suitable. We enjoy it on days when company comes or between the tasks it demands of us or those we create of our own accord, but even these walks through its manic and frenzied bobbing heads and creeping climbers seemed to add only to our list of maintenance woes and rob us of an authentic appreciation. One where, despite their comparative lack of color to the boldness of daylight, despite their inability to give us anything in return for our favors in keeping them healthy, happy, and lovely, we are permitted to love them and show them love — perhaps, then, more than ever — and thanks for what they do bring. Community, togetherness, food, shelter, fuel, beauty, a common cause.
Floral photography is frequently decried an amateur subject. No doubt, the world’s flora is digitally ubiquitous and well-charted territory. Visually, we go over and over the contours of the flower in art, in design, and in our own very visceral emotional lives. Removing the pigments of the garden allows for an “amateur” appreciation harkens to the term’s etymological origins and comments on the selflessness of gardener. Shooting the more intimate corners of the garden in a less frequently seen light using portrait-style technique removes and rejects the idea that plants are still life, unmoving, unresponsive to actions and sustainable with the bare minimum of water, medium, and light.
I am certainly not the first to draw this conclusion, and despite its ubiquity in the field of photography and our photo-centric digital culture, I hope I am not the last. It has long been the task of women to love and care for plants in our jardinières, and it was not long before the love the summer had rekindled entangled with my research interests as a Victorianist. I began by learning the 19th century histories of specimens: their origins, the implications of their transportation to England and to the American frontier, the process of their “discovery”. Quickly these interests expanded and grew to considerations of women’s roles in these contexts:
“I want to do the things, not have them done for me. You know you always preach that babies brought up by servants and led in after dinner are not at all the same things, nor as lovable, as those cuddled and nursed by their mothers. And it’s the same way with a garden.” — Mabel Osgood Wright
When I left in July, I left quickly and without much notice; as soon as she was well. I realized too late that I had ignored the same instinct I had spent weeks sharpening, reclaiming a bright and reckoning sun and amid seemingly-uncountable thunderstorms, nurtured by both of my mothers. There was a place for weeds (many of which I nurtured faithfully in a separate garden of rejected specimens), but where they directly endangered their weakening neighbors or stifled their growth. Mine had been cut back to the roots, progressively. I went limp at news which corroborated the danger I had put myself in in the evenings beyond the garden and once again, I transplanted. That stage of my life left with an echo in the void that I could have sworn hissed with its dying breath a dejected “have fun with your plants”.
When I got back to London, I planted eight hundred and fifty flower bulbs.
My once-barren London courtyard is now bursting with life, our contribution to the Royal Horicultural Society’s #GreeningGrayBritain initiative: it will greet Spring with Wisteria, Clematis, Tulips, Iris, Crocuses, Hyacinth, Daffodil, and more. Over the winter, it hosted Clematis, Cypress, Primula, Pansies, and Camellia. Today, my every day is filled with flowers, on paper and in practice. I have my mother to thank, not for teaching me to weed, but for giving me a place to practice the giving of love, unconditionally; and so the skills to recognize the places in life where its application brought forth good. And when I tend to the tasks my plant friends require, I do so lit by the street lamp after the neighborhood is quiet and the majority of the night’s revelers have gone to bed; far from alone in the blackness as I was in Connecticut, but removed from the singing bustle of the London day.
It’s a little colder out here in the winter, but when I visit home I pay my respects to the winter flora and fauna. “Caroline what the hell are you doing out here? Come inside, it’s late! Jesus. You’ll catch your death”. Mom and I still have our differences. And she still hates Victorian literature (with an exception for Ibsen). Despite this, I plan on writing no William Morris brand utopia, nor launching any botanically-inspired E. Grasset-style castigation, nor dedicating myself to a Mary Vaux Walcott-style expedition to document North American wildflowers… at least not yet. For the moment I am content and in no small part have found this contentment in having a reflection which resembles her at last where before we seemed so different. The garden has become a place to call home and — despite my blatant unwillingness to share, expressly, my religious beliefs, and despite my at-times abject intolerance for the byproducts of organized religion of any variety, I admit — a church.
“7 [love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
12 For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
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Though I believe it is unlikely this will cross the paths of any of these individuals, I would like to thank the staff of Boston Children’s Hospital for saving my Mother’s life. Their nurses are not nurses, but angels who give selflessly and tirelessly to perfect strangers regardless of the goings-on in their own lives.
The surgeon who saved her life and performed her procedure should know that there are a number of students whose lives she has touched who are incredibly grateful for your skill and precise hand, as are her colleagues and friends. Most of all, our family is thankful and I wish to say expressly to you and those like you: for each and every late night you spent pursuing your goals, know that they led you not only to success in your field, but to success as a human being. You are a truly great man.
And should he ever come across this drivel of mine, her specialist should know that she yet laments, and very much so, that he is still too young for her — but he should celebrate to know that, perhaps by God’s grace only, I have not yet been chastised by any member of high society for my indulgence in Dunkin’ coffee. He should also know that while I will keep my clipboard at my side, just in case of their retaliation for my insolence, my wit, I demit, for having met my better.