By Elizabeth McGinley
Formal memorial gardens that honor the heroes of 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan have become part of our 21st-century public landscape. But even the smallest home garden can be a memorial garden, honoring personal heroes. That's what I recently realized as I waited for an elderly friend at her doctor's office in our city's Castor Gardens neighborhood.
I had complimented the receptionist on the violet-pink orchid that graced a table near the door. Serene amid the 1970s-era wood paneling, faded linoleum, and dog-eared magazines, the plant almost glowed in the meager light from the basement office's glass-brick window.
"Oh, thanks. You know your neighbor who passed away?" the receptionist asked. "She gave me that plant, from a slip off one of hers, years ago. I give other friends parts of my plants now too. Maybe someday they will look at their plants and remember me."
She had told me on earlier visits how she and my neighbor had become friends while volunteering together as officers of the local hospital's ladies auxiliary. "I'm sure they will," I told her. "I know I'll think of her when I see her yellow rambling roses this summer."
Just then the phone rang, and the receptionist returned to her desk.
Flowers are potent memory holders, I thought. Is it their color, their scent, or the combination? Or is it that their emergence, then disappearance, mimics memory itself?
I'm more of a weeder and waterer than a gardener, but I've luckily been surrounded by master gardeners in my Northeast neighborhood of Lawndale. My late neighbor Rose, who applied Old World farming know-how to her robust vegetable garden, once appraised two sickly-looking azalea bushes on our side of the fence.
"Elizabeth," she said firmly, "you gotta get out your shears, and get rid of all the dead wood if you want those bushes to bloom again."
So I did. Twenty years on, the bushes explode into pink exuberance every spring. Thanks, Rose.
There are even failures I can't let go of, so firmly rooted in memory are they. My father-in-law, a transplanted country boy, loved to putter in his garden - and ours. Alone. One sunny fall morning, he came by as my daughters, then 6 and 4, played in the back yard. "You know what would be nice," he said, "a row of daffodils in that border outside your kitchen window."
He happened to have a bag of bulbs with him. "That would be nice," I said. "Can I help?"
"No, no," he said, horrified. He carefully got down on his knees and began digging.
"I'll help, Pop-Pop," announced the 4-year-old, suddenly at his elbow. For the next half-hour, my father-in-law accepted bulb after bulb from his unusually diligent assistant. In the past few years, increasing shade has kept the daffodils from blooming, but we can't seem to rethink that border. Empty or not, those bright green leaves remind us of the gentle gardener we all miss.
My husband planted a more successful row of daffodils across our front lawn the day before our November wedding, nearly 25 years ago. One neighbor calls them Lawndale's harbinger of spring. For us, the yellow dazzlers are a private reminder that with care and work (and luck), some things can be perennial.
"Ready?" my 95-year-old friend asked, walking briskly toward the door and cutting my reverie short. When we arrived at her house a few minutes later, she stopped at the gate to her tiny yard.
"This sure needs a spring cleanup," she said, glancing at me. (Translation? "Elizabeth, you gotta get out your shears. ...") "You see that rose bush?" she added. "I helped my mother plant it when we moved into this house 75 years ago."
OK, OK. As I pulled out dried vines and candy wrappers caught in the rose bush, I thought of the garden behind the big old house where I grew up in Wissinoming. The previous owners must have been wonderful gardeners, but my busy parents of five children took a Darwinian approach to the mature rose and azalea bushes we inherited. The only flowers I remember my mother planting were from colorful seed packets bought at the five-and-dime. We kids "helped" her plant the seeds in the flower bed that ran next to the house, from front porch to back door. Despite our benign neglect, then overenthusiastic watering and unintentional trampling, Mom's marigolds and zinnias miraculously returned every summer, right before school started.
Later, watching my friend's face brighten at she approved the "cleaned up" rose bush, I promised myself to do a little memorial planting of my own: Probably not a rose garden, but a small container or window box of memories, of the marigold and zinnia variety.