What Gardens Mean To Me

Some of my earliest memories are of gardens.

Now that my parents are memories, too, I am finding proof of those childhood adventures, packed away in brochures they collected and photos they took.

Looking back, walks in the woods have been one constant in my life. They first took root in the beauty of woodland gardens and manicured parks before I could walk.

The marvel of outdoor discovery followed, thanks to a paved path that climbed through a forest between our neighborhood and my elementary school.

I’d go off-trail often, following deer paths, climbing atop glacial boulders, and breaking the thin ice on a stream to drink from it.

Mom planted roses and created a rock garden. Dad made a hedge of forsythia that draped over an embankment, blazing golden in early spring.

I helped Dad dig stones out of the garden every spring so he could plant tomatoes, potatoes, and beans. I climbed into our dogwood trees when they blossomed to sit among the flowers.

Despite this grounding of woods and plants and outdoors at a young age, I never developed a green thumb like my parents.

But I did develop an appreciation for nature, both wild and cultivated.

As I scan old slides and sift through boxes of travel memorabilia that my parents accumulated, I find that trips to gardens are a common thread through them all.

The last place I walked with my father was a historic garden I’d wanted to introduce my parents to: Old Spanish Point, south of Sarasota. He died a few days later.

A few months later, I took my mother to Charleston. I’d won a pair of tickets to the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, and the director of Magnolia Gardens – one of my mother’s favorite places – extended an invite for a retreat.

Walking in the beauty of Magnolia Gardens brought back Mom’s smile.

It was the start of a year of gardens for us. Whenever I could work it in, I’d take her on my research trips. Or I’d just plan an outing like we did for Mother’s Day, an introduction to Big Cypress amid the orchids at Clyde and Niki Butcher’s cottage in the swamp.

Early the following year, I suggested we plan a trip to chase the azalea blooms north from Florida, culminating in a visit to the North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington.

Mom did the research and I made the connections. We ended up on the road for a month, sweeping across visiting a garden or two almost every single day.

I’d planned to blog about the experience: this was pre-Instagram, and before Facebook was even mobile. Finding WiFi, and time, was a challenge.

I took lots of photos and notes, figuring someday this research would become a book or an app. But life took a different turn after that trip. I moved away, and a few months later, met John.

After Mom was diagnosed with cancer, we tried many times to include her in our visits to gardens. She only took us up on it twice.

The first time was after she was in remission. We went to the Epcot Flower and Garden Show. Since Disney was her favorite place to be, we picked her up and brought her along for a two night stay on the grounds.

John and I were invited speakers to talk about wildflower walks in Florida. Mom spent that morning rambling through Epcot on her own.

The next day she and I spent together, focused on the show. I made a frivolous purchase, very out of character, but one I treasure to this day for the memory.

I call it the “Moms’ Purse.” Mom was with me when I chose it at a botanical artist’s booth, and it was paid for with Christmas money from John’s Mom.

Me and the “Moms’ Purse” at Planting Fields Arboretum, New York

A year later, the cancer returned. We made regular visits to see Mom, and would take her to her treatments when we did.

I suggested a day trip to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, and to my surprise, she took us up on it. John let us wander off on our own.

We’d walked many times at Kanapaha before, but this time was different. She was unsteady on her feet.

She sat down after we got to the lake and said “I don’t know that I can do this.” I held back the tears as best I could and helped her along.

Gentle grades and plenty of benches made it possible to slowly return up the hill. But it was our last walk together in a garden.

When Mom lay in bed in hospice, a lighted panel on the ceiling had a scene of a garden ablaze in azaleas. Mom took her last breath under that garden light.

A little over a year later, I sat in the garden you see at the top of this page, at Enger Park. I was in Duluth for a writer’s conference. The morning I planned to take a hike on the Superior Hiking Trail from the Enger Tower trailhead, my husband called. His mother had died.

He didn’t want me to rush home, so I stuck with my plan. When the taxi driver dropped me off at the trailhead, to my surprise Enger Tower was surrounded by a peace garden. Before I hiked, I sat in contemplation of a life well lived and rang its memorial bell to honor my mother-in-law.

As I walk through gardens now, I understand the connection between memorials in gardens and memorial gardens. And why garden weddings are truly treasured.

We connect the beauty of our loved ones with the beauty of gardens. We memorialize them in manicured places where we can leave flowers for their delight.

We feel gardens as much as we see them. We connect the eden of gardens with Eden, of paradise lost. Their floral abundance and their aesthetics touch us deeply.

And so my love of gardens persists. Not just for the beauty of nature, the colorful blooms, or their organized wildness.

No matter if a garden is new to me or an old friend, walking through one brings back fond memories, of family, of friends, and of life.

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