The Power of the Flower

My grandma’s garden, as written about in the “Illinois Agricultural Record” probably in the 40’s : “The deep grassy ravine at her back door was velvety green.  The woods, showing clearly from her dining room window, were bursting buds in the newness of spring. Yellow forsythia brought golden light into her living room and grape hyacinths sturdily spread their cheer on the table by the window…it was because she loved flowers that she had been selected to serve as local leader on flower arrangements for the Centerville Home Bureau unit.”

(This came from the book my dad (Richard Alexander) wrote on his mom, called “Mom’s Story.” 1991)

My grandma loved flowers so much, that it was a nightmare of hers to think that she might have to move suddenly and not be able to take all her perennials.  Although she made it a “point not to spend more than one dollar a year on flowers”, she had over 50 varieties in her garden, and was known for her arrangements, made with containers she found in the cupboard, and  flowers she found outside. She started her hobby by painting an olive bottle black and arranging some marsh grass in it and winning first prize at the local competition.  Apparently, the other women were not too happy at being beat out by a “bunch of weeds”.

I am not like grandma in that I do not have a knack for arranging flowers, nor do I even want to learn.  I do not buy flowers for the house every week at the farmer’s market like my friend does.  I do not even plant tons of flowers outside my house.  But what I do plant, I love passionately. When I first moved into my house, I was in the yard every weekend, planting and digging up and moving what I’d already planted and planting some more.  It was so wonderful to have my own house and yard, that I couldn’t resist.  My friend now comments about the exorbitant amount of money I spent on this, but I couldn’t help it.  I knew what I wanted:  a magnolia in the middle of my front yard, a lilac near by, tulips and crocuses and hyacinth, an apricot in the back yard, some cacti, and some color. My thumb is not necessarily green, but California came through for me.  If a plant didn’t make it, I moved on, because so many plants thrived and grew  way beyond the bounds that I imagined, that I had an overgrown yard in no time!  (Then I had to learn how to trim back the plants — something I’m still learning!)

I love flowers for the wonderful colors, being a lover of color in everything, and wanting all kinds of colors to surround me at all times.  I love flowers for the wonderful perfumes they spill into the air, and for the wonderful smells they allow me to wear every day.  (My favorite is lilac, I would have been one of the little old ladies who always wore lilac as my signature scent, but it turns out that it’s hard to find these days.)  I love flowers for the welcome they give to all who come to visit, and for the happiness they bring just by their presence, something growing and blooming and filling the air with joy.  And I love flowers for the memories they evoke, the snapdragons that lined my Nana’s walk, that we used to pinch and pretend they were opening their mouths, the sunflower crown I wore at my wedding, made by my grandma, and the multicolored rose I planted for my second daughter when she was young, to represent all the colors in our family.  I will never be known for anything that has to do with flowers like my grandma was, but I can certainly relate to her love of them.

One of the songs I used to play and love was called “Give Me the Roses” and it goes like this:

Wonderful things of folks are said, when they have passed away

Roses adorn the narrow bed, over the sleeping clay.

Give me the roses while I live, trying to cheer me on

Useless are flowers that you give, after the soul is gone.

Let us not wait to do good deeds, till they have passed away

Now is the time to sow good seeds, while here on earth we stay.

Give me the roses while I live, trying to cheer me on

Useless are flowers that you give, after the soul is gone.

Now my long time friend has died of the same kind of cancer that I have.  She got it 3 years earlier than me, and was in the process of recovering from her second bone marrow transplant when her body gave out.  We raised our girls together, just a few days apart in age, after meeting in one of Berkeley’s more neglected parks, spending once a week for years, eating dinner and comparing stories and issues concerning our families.  Together we went through divorces, being single, marriages, and having siblings for our daughters, and we brought her daughter on several trips, as my daughter went on some with her family.  Although we weren’t as close as our children got older, we connected again, especially when I got this same rare cancer, and we discovered we even had the same strain of it.  We used to joke about what in heaven’s name we did to get the same cancer.  Now I am preparing to go to her memorial, still in shock that this vibrant, creative woman isn’t around.  Her husband asked that instead of flowers, we donate to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, a wonderful organization that is getting new drugs approved as we speak.  I look forward to honoring his request, as I grieve and feel fear all at the same time.  But I will appreciate every flower I grow, every flower I get, and every flower I notice on the walks with my dogs, in honor of my friend, and the bright and colorful spirit she embodied.  As per the song, flowers will not do her any good now, but they can remind me of the importance of having joy while I live, and appreciating the colors, smells, and sweet memories of this world.

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