My mom passed away in 1992, on US Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t Thanksgiving Day for her, as she was in Canada, where they celebrate the holiday about a month beforehand, due to the earlier harvest. She died, if not when she wanted to, at least where she would have wanted to, in the old family homestead, Version 2.0: a newly-built house with all the modern conveniences, at the water’s edge in rural eastern Prince Edward Island, just next door to the fifty-some-year-old cottage that had served as the site for many a childhood holiday for my extended family.
My mom was a huge fan of flowers, and our family homes both on the East Coast and in California were a riot of colors from early spring until the first snowfall. I was never a big devotee, I have to say; instead, I was an indentured servant, required on a weekly basis to weed, prune, water and dig, routinely jarring my arms and shoulders on hidden rocks, or smarting from an unexpected encounter with a cactus spine. I swore that if I ever graduated from high school and made it out of my parents’ house, I would never lift another shovel, rake or hoe. I did indeed graduate, and for several decades held firm to my senior-year oath.
My mother must have done most of the planting at the PEI house on her own, with a hand from my stepfather when heavy lifting or rock removal was required. Sadly, she didn’t get to see the fruits of her labors, as she died the first winter she was there. My stepfather kept the place for years, but failing health prevented him from being there much of the time. The house was falling into disrepair from being used only a couple of weeks a year, if that. In late 2004, around Christmastime, he told his five kids that he was planning to sell the place, and wanted to offer it to us first, if we were interested. It wound up that I was the one who bought it. My mother had wanted it to stay in the family, and I was ready for an abrupt midlife change of direction. We transferred the title at the end of December, braving an epic Cape Cod snowstorm to make it to the bank before it closed for the year.
And so, a month later, I found myself looking out across my new front lawn, my new snow-covered front lawn, in the dead of winter, in the dead of night. Just me and my good buddy, an English Cocker Spaniel by the name of Astro, the two of us surveying our new digs and marking our respective territories. It wasn’t until several months later that I realized just how much planting my mom had done in her short time there. At the front door were a hydrangea bush, azaleas, morning glories, daffodils, and purple irises. Outside the kitchen window, overlooking the water, were lilies, some tropical-looking orange flower whose name escapes me, more daffodils, peonies, and probably some others I am forgetting. Like the house, the garden had fallen into weedy disrepair, but it had some of that faded elegance that you can find in, say, Tuscan ruins if you stray off the highways from time to time.
When I first came to Japan, I was completely flabbergasted by the proliferation of flowers, which seemed to grow out of every crack in the sidewalks or walls, in rich shades of crimson, tangerine, and ochre, and seemingly year round. I visited Nezu Shrine for the annual azalea festival, and I had a flash memory of my mother that was so strong I could actually smell her perfume—or perhaps it was just a trick of the flowers. It seemed that everywhere I went, her ghost snuck up on me, reveling in my newfound appreciation for all things floral. In Ashikaga, an hour or two outside Tokyo, there is a wisteria park, featuring the fragrant flowers in all the colors of the spectrum. There are dense tunnels of wisteria to walk through, with the blossoms hanging down from trellises just at nose level (actually that would be nose level for the Japanese, which meant that I had to duck to walk through them). And the piece d’resistance is a pale purple wisteria that is said to be the largest in the world, stretching some 600 feet from tip to tip.
My mom would have been in her element. She would not have enjoyed the subway and train trip to get there; she was always a bit claustrophobic and enochlophobic (no, I didn’t just rattle that word off the top of my head, I had to look it up; it means a fear of crowds), but once she arrived, she would have appreciated it in ways that will be forever elusive to me. So, here are some pictures, Mom. I think of you often.
Happy Mother’s Day!