Nostalgia in the garden

Just as it did last year, rain has pummeled the peonies. Why do we have to get a downpour the very week they open?

We have two rows of them, red, pink and white blooms lining the walkway to the front porch. I planted them right after we moved into this house, hoping to re-create the magic of my grandparents’ back garden, where peonies spilled in luxurious abundance from a double row of bushes. My grandmother pronounced the word with an emphasis on the second syllable: pe-OH-nies.

My whole garden is infused with nostalgia; each plant makes me think of someone. Our irises came from neighbors in Dingmans Ferry and Milford, while the columbines and evening primrose originated in Rita’s garden. A painted fern comes from my friend Patricia’s next-door neighbor in Connecticut, while my brother supplied dahlias he got from folks he knows in Michigan.

And the lilacs are from my mother’s yard in Rhode Island, where my paternal grandfather planted shoots from his own bushes many years ago. By the time Mom dug some up for us, those shoots were 7 feet tall. My sister-in-law suggested planting one beside our porch, because wouldn’t it be nice to smell lilacs when you sit out there in the spring? Every year, I silently thank her for the idea.

I come from a family of gardeners. My grandparents on both sides tended huge plots of flowers and vegetables, and my mother had extensive gardens in her suburban backyard that she expanded every year, with an artist’s eye for color and texture.

Mom is a painter, and her gardens were another art form. She spent countless hours in them, planting, pruning, weeding, digging and fertilizing, and was justifiably proud of the results. She took photographs every year to document the garden’s evolution, and did watercolor still-lifes of the cut flowers she brought inside.

I counted on Mom’s gardening expertise as a major advantage when she moved next door to us. But to my dismay, she suddenly lost interest in planting. That first fall she made a halfhearted attempt to improve the small foundation gardens already in existence by means of a “yellow collection” she bought from a bulb catalog—though why she chose yellow is a mystery, since I knew she never liked that color.

We watched them sprout the next spring, but after that Mom didn’t do much more than buy the occasional hanging basket, which—by her final years here—she invariably forgot to water. “That’s over for me now,” she said about gardening, and to this day I’m not sure if the reason was age and illness, or anomie. Mom hated leaving Rhode Island and never really warmed up to Milford. Things just didn’t flower for her here.

Even so, an unusual iris from that yellow collection has taken root and spread, brightening the little garden in front of the house where she used to live. In some small way, it seems, Mom did leave her mark on the landscape.

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