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In the Garden of the “Luckiest Mother in the World”

My younger sister sent me a photo message on my phone: a picture of the latest bouquet of flowers delivered to my mothers rooms at the assisted living residence where she lives. A riot of sunflowers, carnations, roses, astroemeria, calla lilies—pinks, oranges, yellows, purples. Gorgeous. The florist got it gloriously right. As soon as I got the message, I called.

“Perfect,” I said, as soon as my sister answered the phone.

“Yeah,” she said, “Here, talk to your mother.”

“Nina’s here to take me to lunch,” my mother said.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “She just sent me a photo of your gorgeous flowers.”

“How did she do that?”

“Through the phone.”

“My goodness,” my mother said. “You girls!”

“We are fantastic,” I said.

“You are indeed,” she said.

“You are lucky to have three such amazing daughters,” I laughed.

“I am the luckiest mother in the world,” she said.

“Have a great lunch.”

“I will,” she said. “I love you,”

“Me, too.”

The above conversation could never have happened before my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s nearly four years ago. Not the easy teasing about her wonderful daughters, nor the casual ‘I love yous.’ Even the fact of a telephone call that lasted only a couple of moments could not have taken place. Until her diagnosis my mother’s relationship with her three daughters was a nearly fifty-year roller coaster of recriminations, guilt, anger, sadness, confusion and angst— a never ending bi-polar, alcohol-medicated amusement park ride that ended suddenly in the diagnosis of a terminal illness. A diagnosis that, oddly enough, transformed her into a gentle woman who suddenly looked at her daughters with love and appreciation rather than dissatisfaction and resentment.

For the nearly twenty-five years my mother lived in the house we grew up in in East Tennessee, my mother gardened. She grew flowers and flowering bushes. She planted and pruned and weeded and dug. The house had been brand new, one of the first on the street, with over an acre of pristine green; surrounding the large modern house, an anomaly on the street, she made beautiful gardens. There may have been a time when she was happier than being out in the sunshine, dressed in a halter top and a big floppy hat, her hands digging in the dirt, but I don’t remember it. She never tired of potting and planting, transplanting and tending. And she has the three of us there with her. From my earliest days I remember the dimes and quarters she would promise me for pulling weeds. She taught all of us to love flowers and to know them quickly from the weeds that encroached. Perhaps, because she felt inept at growing her children the way she wished, she grew plants instead—they were easier, less recalcitrant, more immediately beautiful and far simpler to cultivate.

When she and my father divorced, she moved and bought a small one-hundred-year-old house with a tiny lot on the East Side of Providence. Undeterred, she transferred her knowledge of southern gardening to the north, and completely transformed the neglected dirt in front of the fences that surrounded the yard into a showplace. For fifteen years, she again planted and pruned and watered and tended three large gardens: a shade garden on the side, a small garden in the front, and a large garden out back, full of purple and pink and white flowering trees and shrubs and plants and perennials, planted pots, and herbs. She built a small deck on the back of the house so that she could sit under the gorgeous white lilac and look out over her accomplishment and she took her coffee out there every morning possible; her glass of wine there of an evening. She had a man come mow the lawn and help her mulch but she bent and did the weeding and the deadheading and the planting herself, well into her seventies. And always, always, she brought flowers into her house.

When she was diagnosed and the three of us knew her days of living alone were over, we had to empty the house, clean it and get it ready for sale. The trauma of that for all of us is the subject of another essay, but more than leaving the house, the three of us knew that leaving behind the possibility of a garden might be more than our mother could bear. It was our sister Margo who came up with the idea of having fresh flowers delivered to her apartment every two weeks and she arranged that with the florist. The first florist we tried was fine for awhile, then dropped the ball. This new one Margo found seems to get it and the latest bouquet was the best ever.

My sisters and I inherited Mother’s love of gardening whether by biology or environment; we have always had gardens when we have had houses. A few weeks ago I posted my status on Facebook that I had finally cleaned by winter beds of all their weeds. Less than an hour later, each sister confessed to having done the same thing, the middle one asking: What are the odds of each of us doing the same thing at the very same time? The truth? Very good, apparently. We have all learned to forgive Mother our past, forgive each other our own mistakes, embrace what is possible now, and take care of Mother as best we can. If she is a good enough mother, we are content to be good enough daughters. It makes taking care of our mother much easier.

When the very first flower delivery arrived shortly after she moved in, my mother was moved to tears.

She called and said. “Someone has delivered flowers to my room for no reason.”

We told her they were from us and that she should expect them regularly. She seemed confused and wanted to know why.

We explained that they were her garden now that she did not have one.

This was hard for her. The early days of the moving, the diagnosis, were very difficult; her disorientation, her anger, were huge. She railed at the injustice. She was alternately furious at us for selling her house, and grateful that everything had gone so smoothly. She hated Tamarisk, the place in which she was forced to live, and yet refused to move in with any of us, or closer to my middle sister and me, who both live several hundred miles away in Virginia. She wished to stay in Rhode Island, near her sister, her friends, the ocean she so loved. And she would only be an hour and a half away from her youngest daughter. The place we found looks very much like an old English hotel and as such has the requisite large gardens out back. The staff let her wander through it in the spring and summer deadheading the flowers at will, as if it is her own space. She has her own lovely one bedroom apartment; there is a memory unit (such as it is called) for when she gets worse. There are a multitude of activities. But, of course none of this mattered. At first.

Now, it does. Now, three years later, she has settled. She no longer routinely takes the bouquets down to the dining room to “share” them with the other residents. She sits and looks at them, smells them, rearranges them, and knows who they are from when they arrive every two weeks. And the real truth is that we, her three daughters, are the only real garden she has left. Now that she can no longer reap her grapes of wrath, we are the roses she can hold on to for as long as she can.