Spring-cleaning yields garden of memories

Originally published on 6/18/13

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 am forced to purge the growing stack 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 my 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 had installed fresh flowers and mulch in the expansive patio gardens of a West Bank nursing home.

“Wait a 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, an Our Lady of Wisdom resident, would admire months later, just days before her death. The small plugs of flowers the students were planting in the pictures had multiplied into showier clumps by the time my mother arrived at Our Lady of Wisdom, but seeing those eighth graders putting them into the ground took my breath away. It was as though they were doing it just for my mother.

This  garden was the site of my last “good day” with Mom before her passing on Feb. 18, 2013. Earlier that month, on one of those rare low-humidity, cobalt-blue New Orleans afternoons, I had ferried my wheelchair-bound mother from garden bed to garden bed. She pointed to the flowers she wanted me to dead-head and smiled at the Monarch butterflies hovering above 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 flower-filled 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 garden, a shifting parade of annuals in two window boxes and a secret garden in the back yard. 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 one 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 side of the action yielded hibiscus flowers the size of saucers, exquisite calla lilies and fragrant sweet peas that 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 to present to our younger pals. We learned how to extract  – and consume – the droplets of sap inside wild honeysuckle and got a kick out of squeezing the tiny balls produced by crape myrtle trees 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 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 to pot gardening, Mom reclaimed her beloved turf when she and my father relocated to their final marital home. When a plan was hatched to make the front garden more formal – to match the house’s architecture – Mom gave me her uprooted salvia, knowing I would incorporate the stalky perennial into my chaotic butterfly garden at home. Transplanted three years ago, that salvia is finally coming into its own this spring, a burst of life I attribute to Mom’s heavenly oversight.

So, to the teens from St. Andrew the Apostle who made my mother’s final garden sing: The time you spent planting wasn’t just “busy work” or a random field trip that got you out of class for the day.

Your flowers, weeded and watered months 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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