Her fists stuffed into the pockets of a black hoodie zipped up to fight the chill we kicked at loose pebbles that littered the end of the driveway. Roar of the bus as it rounded the corner a block away we had three minutes left to wait. My own fists were stuffed into my own hoodie pockets as we chatted about nothing then her eye caught site of the rose bush a few feet away. A bright pink knockout, one of my few true gardening successes it had been planted at the wrong time and in the wrong place but had prospered despite this. My luck with the propagation of living things limited mostly to the people in my care I had occasionally triumphed with regard to vegetation: a stilted hydrangea, the occasional crape myrtle, but my failures had necessitated a flowery graveyard all their own as legions of bulbs and buds and shrubs and trees had met their doom at my hands. Most notably and regrettably was a storied ficus tree we called Mr. Ficus who weathered my tendency to simply forget he existed for weeks/months at a time between waterings and endured despite this for years only to succumb to the cold on our back porch when I neglected to bring him in.
I mourned these losses; I am a lover of all things that bloom and grow. Hydrangea and lilac and lavender and roses and lilies and daises, the sweet perfumed hyacinth being my most favorite of all. But it was the rose bush I’d had success with and it was the rose bush we now pondered as we stood there, my daughter and I, all nine years of her, long legs and arms, blonde hair pulled back tight in a pony tail the wispy trails of it escaping regardless. “Gaga said we need to prune it before it blooms.” She told me. I had just pointed out the fuzzy red tips on the end of the maple tree in the yard next door and then explained to her one of my favorite parts of the ensuing spring, the Bradford pears who would soon hang heavy with snowy white blooms only to erupt into a stark new green all in the course of a day or so which felt like mere hours because of its relative quickness, as so often nature is a slow old thing. “Bradford pears are what you see on Fort Ave, the big street the bus takes on the way to school. You have to watch for it. They’ll be all white one day and then the next they’ll be green. If you’re not quick you’ll miss it and a storm will come and blow all the flowers away.” She nodded her head at me as if taking in a grand lesson, brush your teeth after breakfast, take your pony tail out before you go to bed lest your hair become impossibly tangled in knots while you sleep, never pick up a bird feather you find on the ground because bird feathers are germy and could make you sick. Lessons your mother forces you to remember the tiny remnants of which explode unbidden into your adult brain at moments you least expect. Those mother truths so powerful in the way that they burrow their way down and down and down until they wrap themselves tightly into your veins and your bones becoming a part of your whole self.
The bus now barreling down our own street I heard my daughter gasp and clutch her hands to her chest. Hanging there on a long green string was a small plastic tube inside of which was a sprinkling of dirt and a tiny green shoot which had just the morning before, after days of careful cultivation and monitoring, worked its way out of a miniscule hole in the top of the container. Just a hairs breadth wide two tiny green leaves jutted from its top, a reality she was terrifically proud of as the tubes of many of her friends still held simply dirt, their near-invisible seed having failed to sprout. I directed my gaze to where her eyes held focus in order to decipher the mystery of this sudden shock, then saw it: the tiny green stalk which we’d inspected minutes before on the way out the door was suddenly broken at the top, the two little leaves hanging limply to one side, the bus now four houses away, then three, then two. I looked into her panicky eyes and in the handful of seconds remaining before I sent her off to meet the day, her now broken prize gripped tightly in her fist; I attempted to fix the world. “You know, it’s still growing. It’s just the top part that kind of broke. That stuff happens to plants all the time. It’ll be just fine. Promise. You know that right?” I stared into her eyes behind her glasses and willed her to know that, to not be suddenly broken like the plant that grew upward out of that small plastic tube. Obviously unconvinced she knew she had no choice but to just deal with it, process it, move on and start her morning, the bus now wheezing to a screechy halt in front of us with a puff and a hiss and a groan. I watched her as she climbed on board and it huffed away at a crawl, the haze of smoke from its diesel engines clouding the air we had previously both shared.
On my way back to the house I took a moment to consider the rose bush. She had pointed to the parts that needed pruning; my mother had explained it to her the day before. “You just cut these old parts off here and that way the newer parts on the bottom will bloom. You’re supposed to do it every year.” She said as she pointed out the places where the new buds would sprout. I knew you were supposed to do that but always hated the process. To make it look beautiful, to make it grow large, you had to first hack away at it and throw away the spent bits, the part remaining looking denuded and small in the meantime, that aspect of gardening the one I’ve always been worst at: to create you must sometimes destroy.
My girl safely packaged and on her way I walked back inside past candy tuft and crocus and daffodils that were yet to show themselves, still sleeping soundly underground, a future memory, repeated as the seasons repeat their songs. My phone ringing in my pocket I answered it, my mother. “What’s up?” I say by way of greeting, a strange time to call, she knew this was my busy time. “Louise died this morning. 7:48. I didn’t want to call you and tell you. But I had to call you and tell you.” She sounded strong, slightly broken. I feebly answered “I know” and “Okay” and after a moment and a handful of words we hung up, me trying not to let the tears come that pushed at and stung my eyes.
Louise had turned 90 two weeks before. My mother said that she’d looked through the fog of old age at the cut flowers in the vase next to her bed, I’d sent them to her as I always sent them to her and she remarked with surprising cognizance and clarity “She always sends me flowers.” A rarity anymore for her to be so on-point, that piece of knowledge had warmed my heart when my mother had told me. Some things still find a way to be true. Some things insist on ringing their bell through the darkness.
This morning, this beautiful morning, sun arched high in the sky, blue with white cotton clouds, the stiff spring breeze carrying the twinkly little cadence of the birds who’d come home; I’d stood with my daughter at the street and marveled at the secrets and the beauty of our natural world and wished I knew more to tell her about the names of the flowers and the bushes and the plants. I’ve never remembered enough about them though I’ve always tried. I’ve always deferred to the sages who knew it all, who’d understood their mysteries. My mother. And Louise. My brain flooded then with her names, Louise’s names, for the world that surrounds us: candy tuft, azalea, gladiola, dianthus, wedding lace, bridal veil, gerbera daisy, tulips, lily of the valley, violet, chrysanthemum, zinnia, lavender, geranium, iris. Feminine names, women’s names. The names of the flora that fill our world and our senses, the ancient wisdom of those female wonders who mastered the art of the patterns and the cultivation of it all.
My daughter will come home late this afternoon and will have recovered from the tiny-broken-plant-sadness of her morning and I will have to tell her that Granny Louise died. She will mourn as we all will mourn and I will forever link that moment of standing at the curb with my child waiting for the bus with the knowledge that at that very moment many miles away that lovely heart was fading and taking with it that endless treasury of secrets and knowledge, a world now forever packaged away into memory. But I won’t tell her any of that. I’ll save that for myself. Instead I’ll teach her to help her heart heal by explaining that we are rose bushes that need pruning, our tops tended to carefully while the new blooms grow, we are that stalk that reaches upward upward from the dirt in the plastic vial around a young girl's neck, our leaves sometimes broken or damaged but resolute to reach upward still, out of the dirt, into the sun. Upward, upward.