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Gardening Columns

My mother's peaceful woodland gardens were a reflection
of her artistic eye and appreciation for subtle beauty.

The Language of the Garden

First published on on February 2, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn

My mother was a woman of few words and not given to much in the way of chitchat. So in her later years, as I telephoned more and more frequently to check on her, it was sometimes challenging to find things to talk about. Over the last few years, however, we found a rich common ground in conversations about our gardens.

When my mom fell and broke her hip in 2001, I traveled up to Connecticut to help out, and despite my best efforts at cooking and cleaning, the most useful thing I did was arrange her houseplants at waist height so she could continue her careful tending without bending and risking another fall. In her usual way, she fussed at the attention but I knew she appreciated the effort. That spring, we went to the garden center together and bought large containers and lots of plants. "Too many, too much money," she balked, but I can be very persuasive. Together we set up the easy-to-tend pots filled with tomato plants and flowers, and made a few simple bamboo tepees for morning glories and pole beans. And thus an annual ritual was born.

Every spring from then on, I'd travel up north and spend "too much money" on plants and seeds. She balked, I insisted, she relented and was quietly pleased. We'd laugh about it together, our different personalities. If she felt well enough, she'd help me plant the containers; if she wasn't feeling well she'd sit in a chair and keep me company. Then every time I telephoned, she'd give me an update on the plants. "The tomato plants have flowers," or "I picked eight beans today."

My mom's gardens reflected her personality. Subtle, quiet, nothing too flamboyant (except for the occasional garish magenta fuchsia her daughter would buy her and she would still lovingly tend). She had no use for lawns and instead created meandering paths through the woods. She loved the little treasures only she knew about -- the bleeding heart tucked back here, the cuttings she rooted that took hold and flourished.

I don't remember my parents teaching me about gardening -- my dad also gardened -- but then again, I don't really remember them teaching me how to sew or cook or change the oil in my car, but somehow I learned about those, too.

When my dad passed away, I believe her gardens were her solace. We talked more often after that, about plants we had grown or hoped to try. About the challenges of difficult weather. And occasionally about the frustrations of our respective constraints -- for me, time and energy; for her, an aging and uncooperative body. But the tenor of those conversations was always one of quiet hope -- the hope of the new spring; the hope of the next sunny, warm day. And underneath the words we spoke was an unspoken understanding that we shared a deep and abiding connection, forged by our love of nature.

Three weeks ago, during one of my routine visits, my mom's health took a turn for the worse. Over the last few months she had been confined to a wheelchair, her hands too shaky from pain medications to allow her to draw, her other lifelong passion. During her last week I spent many hours at her bedside, holding her hands, conversing when she was able. At one point, thinking she was asleep, I gently told her I loved her, what a great mom she is, thanked her for all she has done for me -- the words you hope to be able to say to someone preparing to depart. Without opening her eyes, she interrupted me and said in a whisper, "Enough."

I had broken the rules. Our language was the language of the garden. We didn't talk about love or gratitude. Everything that needed to be said had already been said in our conversations about sun-warmed tomatoes and freshly picked beans.

A week later, my 86-year-old mom passed away peacefully in her sleep.

Last Saturday, I worked the soil in my garden. It's too early, the ground is too wet, but that wasn't the point. I needed to do something productive, physical, and forward-looking. I needed the solace the garden offers to a broken heart.

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