Flower power

| 02 Jul 2018 | 03:38

I never paid any attention to the impatiens. Maybe I’d spot Mom squatting in the mulch one spring day, or not, and then they’d be there, cheerful annuals that seemed a little silly. Her plantings were like an Easter egg hunt, my grandmother teased – Mom was famously frugal, so there was one here, one over there, and three Johnny jump-ups in the window box. But there they were, every spring without fail, along the edge of the driveway, the backdrop to our first-day-of-school pictures, the out-of-bounds area for driveway basketball games, the wallpaper to all our comings and goings.

When Mom got sick, lots of people sent flowers – beautiful arrangements with the kinds of cards that, since I read them all, have taught me what grown-up friends can say to express their love, when Get well soon! isn’t quite right. She rearranged them around her apartment, breathing in their perfume. Later she had us move them around, promoting the orchid-in-full-bloom to dining table centerpiece, critiquing the layout with what I started, at long last, to appreciate was a bit of an artist’s eye.

One particularly dear friend she asked not to send flowers. Instead, she wanted live plants – winter pansies – to plant on her deck. I was unfamiliar with these guys from childhood. We grew up in New York, and now Mom lived in D.C., where these deceptively languid, summery looking blooms can apparently survive all winter, even after getting buried in snow. So arrived a hefty haul of potted winter pansies with floppy petals the color of sunshine, along with some green-and-purple ornamental cabbages, triple the number of plants she’d have bought for herself.

Thanksgiving morning, I had a job to do. I’d worked at a nursery for a summer, so this was my gig, and I was grateful for it. I planted those deck planters so full that they looked ready for a magazine shoot, so full that when I watered them, the water rolled right off onto the glass table. I sponged it up just in time for the early birds to start arriving for the big day.

Everyone understood, without speaking of it, the momentousness of today. Was Mom really up for hosting 20-something for Thanksgiving when, as it would turn out, she had one month to live? Of course she was. And it was going to be flawless.

For the crew that had coalesced around her – Mom’s partner, my brother and his girlfriend, and me helping out when I could – that spelled stress. It had always been so important to Mom to set a festive table, to have everything just so. As a kid, the setting up for a dinner party looked to me like its own sacred rite, full of portent and commanding of reverence: the seating chart, the leaves added to the dark wood table, the placing of the fine china performed with pursed lips and observed, by us, from a healthy distance. God help the poor fool who filched a shrimp off the platter before the guests arrived.

That all seemed silly, too, until it didn’t. In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, Mom’s urgency was contagious. Partly, we had to step it up to avoid her wrath, which remained impressive considering her overall weight and strength by that point. But as we polished silver and folded napkins, prepped the turkey and planted pansies, none of it felt frivolous. Now more than ever, we needed to convey cheer, a sense of order. We needed to show the family, each other, heck, ourselves, that we were doing more than surviving by the skin of our teeth. That despite the inevitability of what was growing under Mom’s ribcage, despite the days to come when maybe we wouldn’t make it out of our pajamas, today we had flowers, inside, outside, all over the place. We had the right plates and cups and the silver was polished. And we had a feast.

After football, when we got back to the apartment, people visited a few at a time in Mom’s room, lounging on her bed and laughing a lot. Throughout the afternoon, I snagged unoccupied loafers and brought them over to the window to admire the deck, jam-packed with Mom’s je ne sais quoi, the solar powered hummingbird that lit up as evening fell, the string of Christmas lights that twined around her balcony railing, and all those flowers. Look, was all I had to say.

On my next visit a few weeks later, I noticed smugly that all the winter pansies in D.C. had been leveled by a cold snap, but that Mom’s, protected by the deck, responded to a little deadheading by bursting forth anew. The day before Mom died, she had her own burst of energy. I wheeled her out to the deck and we sat under a blanket, surrounded – in December! -- by all that yellow. She closed her eyes and put her face toward the afternoon sun, this slight smile on her lips that I’d seen recently, first at the hospital: like she was gathering her self-possession, summoning a deep reserve of strength for what lay ahead.

The next day, and the days that followed, seemed drained of all color. They came and went, gray as the fat man in the suit who came to take Mom, the overformal funeral parlor, the overcast sky. Despite our valiant efforts, Christmas was about as merry as my haggard face in the mirror. Then came the endless snow.

“Looking forward to spring,” was my stock answer, when people asked how I was doing. (It was better than, “looking forward to joining Mom,” the kind of gallows humor that only works when talking to my brother.)

Would color return when the flowers did? When the daffodils came up that same winter pansy yellow, the wisteria dripped purple off our porch, the peonies exploded pink and white, would I step back into technicolor Oz? Or was I stuck in sepia-toned Kansas, now that Mom and her trail of Johnny jump-ups were gone?

I could finally see how bright those little flowers had blazed, all the way back to my childhood. I could hear them, too. They said something like, “You’re the most important person in the world to me. You deserve beauty. You deserve all the beauty the world has to offer.” Just like the polished silver.

When I saw my brother in the spring, he handed me a white envelope. He’d grabbed it on the last, really-for-real-this-time last time out of Mom’s apartment, before it got staged and her closet of dresses (where I secretly liked to go and just smell them) dispersed to estate sale customers and then I think the needy. I like to think some of the tougher teenagers around D.C. showed up at proms rocking Vera Wang and Versace.

The envelope said “Morning glory seeds” in Mom’s handwriting. No way. I didn’t know Mom saved seeds, although of course she did. I pocketed the envelope and when I got home, scattered the hard black specks along the borders of my vegetable beds and in the pots where I’d grown more vegetables in years past. Morning glory can be invasive – I know it. I remember what color Mom’s are, that baby blue. Already the seedlings have emerged, sprouting little pairs of green wings. Let them invade.