A sweet story about my mother and the solace of the garden especially during troubling times.
I remember standing along the side of the garage watching my mother tend some bright red geraniums.
I was waiting for my date and feeling that he wasn’t going to show. I’m not sure why i felt that way. I just did. I think hanging around close to my mother made me feel less nervous, that she would be close when the inevitable happened.
My date was a boy I really didn’t know well. We were going to a summer invitational. That’s what we called these dances, not a school dance, not a club dance but ones put on privately by a group of girls. I would have an invitational that coming spring. These dances were somewhat formal and the local paper, eager for news, always published an announcement with a photo. A program would be printed, a hall rented, usually the Elks Club downtown, and a a stodgy, parent-approved band hired. Thinking about those dances, I can feel the scratch of my starched, nylon-net crinoline, the fragrance of L’Air de Temps and hair spray, feel the sweet press of a clean smelling young boy as we slow danced to the Lou Han Trio.
This boy, this date, was the friend of a girlfriend’s brother and I was taken by his warm, brown eyes and polite manner. I didn’t have a boyfriend that summer between junior and senior year. In fact, I didn’t really have a boyfriend all during high school. I dated a few guys that were in our crowd, maybe to play Risk and drink gin and ginger ale in someone’s basement rec room or go to a movie, probably with the gang. But I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and it was acceptable and expected that we girls could ask a guy out for our dances. Since the invitationals were planned and held by a group of girls, it was OK for me to ask someone for a date. Despite this advantage, there was still the nervousness, the butterflies, the fear of being rejected. Most of the time, I didn’t like doing it, especially if it was someone I didn’t know very well, like this time, but I really wanted to go to this more casual, summer dance. I wanted to be there with a group of girls I admired and envied. I wanted to be part of them.
Mom and I made small talk as I stood there in my new dress with its full skirt. Under it I had on my biggest crinoline even though it was August. The dress was lemon yellow with spaghetti straps and white embroidery on the bodice. I never got the super tan I wanted but I had some color and my legs looked shiny brown in my new, white high heels.
In the black, malleable soil of Central Illinois, most everything seems to grow like crazy, in the season, not all year. That’s how it seems to me now that I’ve lived in California nearly half my life, where cycles of growing overlap and intertwine, seasons blur. I grew up in that flat, fecund Midwestern landscape and got an early taste for the pleasures of digging in dirt and seeing things push up through its moist, loamy weight. It still seems miraculous to see a green sprout, so fragile and tender, break through the heavy ground. Against so many odds; snails, slugs, all sorts of fungus and rot, not to mention raccoons, gophers, dogs, and kids, life forces itself up towards the sun.
My mother was an avid gardener and I now know the quiet work and focus of gardening. Often when I am deadheading the cosmos or trimming out invasive morning glory vines, potting new plants, staking tall gladiolas. I think about our yard from back then and see the ample form of my mom. She is kneeling over her wildflower circle or tending to a prize day lily, trying to coax the valued near-black bloom, by her attention and care and love, for what is this nurturing if not love,
When I’m working in our shared urban garden behind my multi-unit building on Russian Hill, hours may pass and I notice only because the light changes, or a cool wind picks up or the fog starts to roll in, announced by the foghorns bleating over the Bay. Today is a party up the block and I hear the sweet, off-key voices of children singing Happy Birthday. A siren whines, a motorcycle backfires in the tunnel, the cable car chugs up Hyde Street as I tend this only slightly tamed, gaudy place we call The Garden.
Towards the back, we let the wild things go; the ivy, valerian, morning glory, the succulents, the geraniums. It’s just too hard to get back there, squeezing by a vicious century plant and a spiky old rose bush. From any place in the garden, and it’s big, the biggest back lot in our block, I can see scarlet geraniums. It seems they are always in bloom, in some corner out there, anytime of year. Perhaps I alone see them…the red geranium against bright yellow cotton, the spicy scent on my skin.
When I was in high school, boys brought their dates flowers if they were going to a dance. I hope they still do. For a prom, a hand-held nosegay was in order, for these smaller events, a corsage would do. As I stood there that hot early evening, rocking on my heels, they were new and moving a bit relieved the pressure, I wondered what sort of corsage my date might bring. Would it go with my dress? Mom asked me about the girls giving the dance. They were from the big public high school and I felt my being invited was a prelude to join one of two senior year sororities, Hob-Nob or Charter. I knew it was a long shot since very few girls from our Catholic school were members. That summer and that night it seemed important in a way I was unable to really describe. I admired the neat, collegiate look of these girls in their madras bermuda shorts, and and roomy sweatshirts, navy for Hob Nob, maroon for Charter. They were always having car washes and doing charity things. Mostly they seemed beyond high school and hometown and closer to that magical world of college.
A few years later, my world would change radically, my mother having succumbed to a swift and deadly cancer, myself struggling with grief and adjustment, and filled with indignation about treatment of blacks in the South and the slaughter that was Vietnam. At University, I loathed the Greek System and what I felt they stood for but that summer evening, as the mosquitoes started to pester and the sun got low, I felt on the threshold of something, of belonging and I was eager to join the girls I saw as favored.
I think Mom was staying busy so as not to abandon me. Our small talk got more forced. Finally, I went in the kitchen to check the clock. It was late, too late to be ignored and I knew the nice boy with the brown eyes wasn’t coming and I was not going to impress anyone with my tan and pretty yellow dress. When I came back out, Mom had snipped a perfect, full, brilliant red geranium and held it up to my dress like a corsage. We went into the kitchen and she pulled open the everything drawer and found a long pin probably from one of my more successful evenings out, and pinned the flower to my dress. She stood back admiringly but I could feel only embarrassment.
Mom just said, “Your day will come.”
We went into the family room, I slipped off my tight new heels and we joined my dad on the couch and watched TV.
Geraniums are virtually indestructible. If you break off a stem, just stick it in the dirt and soon there’s another plant and soon after that, a bright red bloom. I don’t think about the disappointment of that night. Instead I remember that perfect red, my yellow dress, my mother’s uncomplicated love for me and I never forget it because there are always geraniums to remind me.