restricted access My Mother, Gardening
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My Mother, Gardening

Can you see anything inside?” his companions cried out to the archaeologist Howard Carter when he opened King Tut’s tomb, secreted in the sands for thirty centuries. “Yes!” Carter called back, “Wonderful things!” It was November 4, 1922: two and a half years before my mother was born. Carter and the others dizzily wandered the chambers where the young pharaoh had been buried, his sandals exquisitely carved, braided in solid gold to simulate woven reeds. All of Tut’s organs, his heart and his liver, each kidney and his stomach, were embalmed and laid in stoppered canopic jars, then fitted into golden coffinettes. Coffers of fish and assorted meats, thirty jars of wine, four complete board games, one hundred thirty-nine ebony, ivory, silver, and gold walking sticks, fifty linen garments—for the Egyptians believed that earthly human affairs continued in the afterlife—were preserved in the airless, crowded rooms.

I wonder what my mother would wish to take with her on such a journey, a journey beyond time. Surely she would hope to leave behind the damaged lungs that are slowing her down in her eighties, though she has already lived so much longer than the Boy King, dead at nineteen. Without a doubt she would have her Scrabble board folded up and set beside her, the soft old cotton sock still filled with worn tiles, the little wooden racks on which she’d sorted and re-sorted so many letters, made so many words. Her tennis racquet, just in case strength and flexibility should be granted to her once again. Perhaps she would keep the autumn leaves that I ironed in grade school between sheets of waxed paper and cut into bookmarks; and the clove-studded oranges that I made with my Girl Scout troop, shrunken and fragrant as the aged, perfumed offerings surrounding Tut in his tomb.

And she’d want to take the flowers she had gloriously preserved all her life: the light blue salvia that she’d grown and hung to dry in pipe-cleanered bunches over the kitchen sink, the Queen Anne’s Lace that she’d collected on weekend walks in the country. She always saved the loveliest of the roses from gift bouquets, at Mother’s Day and birthdays, and sank them one by one into finely sifted sand. When she gently drew them out, the fragile blossoms would be perfectly fixed, hovering forever at the grayish edge of pink. Wonderful things.

My grandparents came to America from the small Jewish villages of eastern and [End Page 38] central Europe: from dark, gardenless places. Gardens glowed at the very center of the new landscape that their children built around themselves, a landscape of hope.

In their first spring of suburban homeownership my parents drove the six-lane Lake Shore Drive that hugged Chicago, to the annual flower show on the south side of the city. From the back seat of the car my sister and I watched Lake Michigan’s just-thawed water lapping crystalline along the entire route. On view at the vast McCormick Place were the newest innovations in home gardening: riding lawn mowers; racks of seed packets inviting amateurs to grow eggplant and other exotic vegetables; trowels, hoes, pruning shears; wheelbarrows scaled to suburban backyards and weekend work; peat containers that stretched the limits of the growing season by making it possible to start flowers and vegetables indoors. The end of wartime rubber rationing had already put giant coiled hoses into the hands of millions of optimistic home gardeners. My mother and my father entered a hungry trance as soon as they crossed the threshold of the exhibition hall and came into the presence of Burpee and Scott, the great merchandisers who’d plastered the long walls behind their booths with enormous photographs of gardens in bloom and flawless green lawns flowing infinitely into the distance. These were the dreams with which my parents loaded our car and drove home along the lakeshore, with which they began to plan and to plant.

The Yellow Climax Marigold—capable of growing as tall as three feet, of producing giant blossoms as wide across...