Monday, March 28, 2011

A Garden for My Mother (Guest Post)

A Garden for My Mother
By Ellen Michaud,
Author of Blessed: Living A Grateful Life

Gently touching the pages of my mother's old gardening book, and lightly tracing her penciled notes with a finger, the grief I felt at her absence was palpable.

Pirouetting across the barren, scarred ground in front of my cottage high in the mountains of Vermont, my friend Silvia was clearly delighted with the challenge I'd handed her.

Last winter, 93 mile-an-hour winds had ripped a whole stand of tall pine trees out of the ground. The rich forest floor had disappeared in the storm's turbulent aftermath, and only the packed clay subsoil, marked by the treads of a log truck, tractor and an excavator, remained.

Silvia, a garden designer at the local nursery, was thrilled.

"We can put a pagoda dogwood over there," she beamed, pointing her sketchbook toward an area that had, until last December, contained 15 pine trees and the rich, nurturing soil of a pine forest.

"We can put a birch clump over there." She pointed with her pen. "And a holly over there." The sketchbook gestured in the opposite direction.

"And can we move the Japanese lantern?"

Quirking a questioning eyebrow at me, she paused a moment as I sat on the cottage's front steps and considered. "We can put it here in front of that remaining hemlock with a weeping pea tree," she clarified. "With a tall sheaf of Japanese silvergrass and a 6-inch high waterfall of white pine that wanders through the arrangement." Her hands sketched the plants and their placement as she talked.

"What do you think?"

Silvia's plan was perfect. At my sudden smile and nod of agreement, the designer whirled toward the hemlock, her bright red coat flaring out in the spring sunshine. The visions inside her head tumbled onto her sketchpad at a rapid rate -- and I knew it wouldn't be long before those visions would reclaim the storm-roughened ground in front of us.

Leaving Silvia to finish plotting out square feet and plant sizes, I went inside the cottage to look through my gardening books and check out the plants she'd suggested.

What on earth was a weeping pea tree anyway? Running my fingers along a bookshelf of colorful book covers bursting with exotic flowers and shaggy barks, I stopped at one old book, its plain green cover darkened by age. Pages torn from a desk calendar that my mother used back in 1972 -- with notes in her perfect, British school-girl penmanship about specific plants–were inserted among the pages.

The book had been hers. Every spring she'd pull it out, sit down at the kitchen table to study it, and mark the plants she wanted on pages from the calendar.

April 20th: "Hypericum Hidcote. 5 feet. Elegant."
April 21st: "Magnolia. Large saucer-shaped flowers."
April 25th: "Ilex opaca, an American Holly."
April 26th: "Forsythia Lynwood. Gold, large flowers with broad petals.
May 25th: "Weigela. Spring-flowering shrubs, which bear trumpet-shaped flowers in great abundance. . ."
May 28th: "Syringa. Lilacs. 8 to 12 feet. Flower in the spring. . ."

The book would sit on the table for weeks until, recognizing she couldn't afford everything she wanted, she'd put it back on the bookshelf. "Next year," she'd say. "Next year we'll plant the magnolia" -- or the lilac or the forsythia or whatever else had caught her fancy.

But looking over the list of plants from her 1972 notes, I realized that she'd never planted any of them. It was the year my father had retired from the Navy, and money was scarce. By the following spring she had had a heart attack and -- those being the days when cardiac rehab was pretty much rest, blood thinners, and lectures on smoking cigarettes -- she gave up her cigarettes, gave up her garden, and moved with my father to Florida for a less expensive, less active life.

She died there, six years later.

Gently touching the pages of her old gardening book, and lightly tracing her penciled notes with a finger, the grief I felt at her absence was palpable. She'd never seen her grandson grow into a strong, caring man. Never seen her daughter become a loving, nurturing woman. Never planted her magnolia. Never closed her eyes in bliss as a light spring breeze brought the scent of lilacs into the house.

Thoughtfully, I looked out the window at Silvia making her sketches, then looked down at my mother's notes.

Adding a magnolia, some lilacs, a graceful fountain of forsythia, and a patch of cheerful yellow hypericum to Silvia's design might not be a bad idea. It would create a small cottage garden that would fill the space in front of my home, and -- perhaps -- fill that small space in my heart that holds the woman who made me do the dishes, taught me how to make mud pies, and loved me fiercely.

Closing my mother's book, I got up to go talk with Silvia.

It was past time for mama to have her garden.

The above is an excerpt from the book Blessed: Living A Grateful Life by Ellen Michaud. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2011 Ellen Michaud, author of Blessed: Living A Grateful Life

Author Bio

Ellen Michaud, author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, is an award-winning author who has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Better Homes and Gardens, Lady's Home Journal, Parents, Reader's Digest, and Prevention, where she was the editor-at-large for six years.

For more information please visit and, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosure:  I have not read this book, nor have I received any compensation for sharing this excerpt with you.

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