Spring-cleaning yields garden of memories

Dear St. Andrew the Apostle Elementary School: A service project performed by your students last year meant more to my family than you could ever imagine.
Let me explain.
Every so often I must purge the growing tower of papers that sits in a corner of my desk at work. I like to keep this chronological “layer cake” of notes, brochures and other documents handy in case someone requests a record of something I have written or photographed for the Clarion Herald.

During the most recent spring-cleaning, I came across a thumbnail gallery of photos taken in May 2012 by photographer Frank J. Methe. The images documented a volunteer endeavor in which St. Andrew’s eighth-graders installed fresh flowers and mulch throughout the expansive patio gardens of a West Bank nursing home.
“Wait I second,” I thought, taking a second look at the pictured scene. “I know that place.”

Turns out the spot the students were beautifying was the outdoor common area at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center in Algiers; what’s more, the flowers they were planting – impatiens – were the very blooms my mother, a hospice resident, would admire months later, just days before her death. The small plugs of flowers the students had planted had merged into showier clumps by the time my mother arrived at Our Lady of Wisdom for hospice care, but still – just seeing the faces of the teens who put them in the ground took my breath away.

This particular garden was the backdrop of my last good day with Mom before her passing on Feb. 18.Earlier that month, on one of those rare low-humidity, cobalt-skied afternoons, I ferried my wheelchair-bound mother from garden bed to garden bed. She pointed to the flowers she wanted me to deadhead and smiled at the Monarch butterflies flitting in the milkweed. For more than an hour we basked in the sun like ladybugs and listened to the fountains in the setting my mother loved above all others: a courtyard.

Mom was a passionate planter and had the blunted fingernails to prove it.
At my childhood home near the Fair Grounds, she cultivated azaleas in the front beds, a parade of annuals in two window boxes and a secret garden out back. My father’s joke in those days was that although he couldn’t give Mom “a house with a picket fence,” he was able to give her “a house with ‘a third of a picket fence.’” It was against this wooden property divider that Mom would try, unsuccessfully, to grow Confederate jasmine and Rose of Montana.

Fortunately, growing conditions were better on the opposite side of the house – the stretch bordered by our combination driveway-basketball court. That end yielded hibiscus flowers the size of saucers, exquisite calla lilies and fragrant sweet peas, which Mom grew from seed and trained up a chain-link fence. The spot was so golden, Mom would ask us to suspend all basketball-playing during “sweet pea season,” lest her prized blossoms be crushed by a poorly timed assist.

Thanks to Mom’s hobby, flowers figured into a ton of my childhood fun.
My friend Charlotte and I spent hours making clover necklaces and stringing 4-o’clocks onto sturdy stalks of grass. We learned how to extract  – and consume – the droplets of sap inside wild honeysuckle, and how, using two fingers, the tiny balls produced by crape myrtle trees could be squeezed into premature flower. During solo games of “House” I would divide lantana – or “ham and eggs” – into their two breakfast-like components.
Having received this honorary degree in flower appreciation from my mother, it didn’t surprise me when two new flowerbeds, bursting with impatiens, greeted my husband and me when we arrived home from the hospital with our newborn daughter.
Mom, the inveterate “flower bomber,” had struck again.

Although a move to the French Quarter would relegate her garden work to pots, Mom reclaimed her beloved turf when she and my father moved to their final marital home. When my sisters decided to make the front garden more formal – to match the house’s architecture – Mom gave me the uprooted salvia, knowing I would incorporate the stalky perennial into my own butterfly garden. Transplanted three years ago, the salvia is finally coming into its own this spring, a burst of life I would like to attribute to Mom’s heavenly oversight.
So, to the young hands and hearts that made my mother’s final garden sing: The time you spent planting wasn’t just “busy work.”
Your flowers, weeded and watered after you left, gave my mother a little foretaste of heaven.
   Staff writer Beth Donze is the editor of Kids’ Clarion.

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