Caring for a parent, Love letters from World War II, mother daughter relationship, Self-care

In Search of My Mother’s Garden

I’ve been dreading the arrival of spring. I know, you are saying, “You have finally lost it, Gretchen.” And what with the rain and the late snows and the slow-to-bloom spring flowers, it would appear the Universe is honoring my wish to put off the march toward summer extroversion a bit longer.


I can explain. There is an enormous amount of work to do outside. When it stops being winter—if it stops—I have to abandon, or preferably be finished with, my indoor projects. That includes getting space ready for an AirBnB. Repurposing the space I’ve been living in means making room for me upstairs. One of those projects included “reorganizing” my father’s study, and since then I’ve been loving writing in this room where I feel his presence. I want to stay holed up in here.


I’ve been dreading going outside because I’m now in charge of my mother’s garden. I don’t like working in other people’s gardens; I’m more a creative—or recreative—type. I have enjoyed recreating some long-abandoned nooks and crannies and making them my own, but I haven’t touched the major gardens. I left them to Dan the Handy Man, who was less averse to following instructions, and who is no longer doing it.

Then one afternoon last week—five days ago—the sun came out. It was even warm. Damn. My mother had commanded that morning that I not do any outside work because I have had a cold for weeks. I was inclined to be the obedient child, though her concern was, in my opinion, ridiculous. I was enjoying just writing and reading and not doing anything at all I needed to be doing, inside or out, in the name of “sick.” I checked the forecast the day the sun deigned to show its light: none in sight again in the 10-day. Sighing, I put on my boots, grabbed my gloves and clippers, headed out.

I cut off last year’s sword fern fronds, and the chrysanthemum and black-eyed Susan stems, and a bunch of other dead detritus from last season’s garden. A whirlwind 45 minutes. I left the piles at the edges to be picked up another day. It’s been raining ever since.


I should have cleaned off the roof that day, another task I’ve been “forbidden” to do. It was okay for my father to do it. I’m in better shape than my father was in his 70s. It was okay for Dan the Handy Man to do it. I’m stronger than Dan. It was okay for my brother-in-law to do it. I’m younger than my brother-in-law. But I’m a girl. I’m unclear how that factors into my mother’s thinking. But back to the garden.

I enjoyed it! It felt good to take the old in my hands, thank it for the beauty it provided last year, and create space for what’s to come. It was an honoring of the past, without getting stuck in it. It’s what I’m doing inside too: putting away what doesn’t give me joy and uncovering buried treasure to bring into the light.

My mother’s Remington Rand.
Found in the back of a drawer in my father’s desk. The camera my mother bought in high school, on which, I assume, many of the photos I have found were taken.
Still to come: framing some of the tiny etchings my father bought from a traveling artist while he was stationed in France. I read about them in his letters to my mother, and found them languishing in a box in a cupboard in the storage room.

I remember how much I enjoyed restoring Mary Mingus’s garden at my little house in Raleigh. Like the objects of a life I am uncovering inside this house and making space for, back then, as I pulled out the life-snuffing English ivy, I found bulbs that had no room to rise from the earth and buried flagstone from an old walkway to lay a new one. I discovered writing in that garden and poured out my observations about life and gardening in my first blog, My View from the Garden.

I suspect every gardener my mother hired was bound by her instructions and lists. She loves her lists. I inherited that love; but my lists are for me, hers were for her hires, at least in recent years. What I don’t like is being told how to do things. She revels in telling people what to do and how to do it; I’m a rebel. It has been the spine of our discontent all the years, past and recent, I have lived with her.

Now she isn’t onsite to instruct, and I can’t wait to get back to it. I feel free to honor her love of nature through her gardens, without obligation to follow her rule book. I will make mistakes, pull things that should have been clipped, prune in the wrong places, thin too much or too little, plant new things where there’s too much sun or shade. But that’s okay; we will all survive.

Meanwhile, along with my mother’s garden to finish uncovering, there is winter blow down to pick up, two garden gates to repair, the vegetable beds to prepare and start planting, trails to clear…and the AirBnB to get online. There’s sun in the forecast for Sunday. I’m ready.

By the way, Mama was discharged from Hospice, again, last week. Failure to decline.


16 thoughts on “In Search of My Mother’s Garden”

  1. As I write these words it’s 20 degrees in NH, and there’s still a foot of snow on the ground. Failure to melt. (And yet, I know that when the crocus bloom and the ground softens, that will be the end of my closet cleaning. . .which I really would like to finish. ) I’m so glad to have found you, thanks to Karen Maezen Miller, and I adore your writing.


    1. I’m so glad you found me too, Katrina! Thank you for reading and for following. And ugh to 20 degrees. I got a lot done outside on Sunday before the rains returned. But, really, it’s time to start planting the garden. And still plenty to do inside. The push and pull of the season change. I need it to stop raining so maybe I will get over this blasted cold! (And I hope it doesn’t last for the next four years.) I just looked at your beautiful website and blog. Thank you for wisdom and loveliness.


  2. A Hospice graduate… Wow. How does your Mom feel about that? Mine came close to graduating and then a spring day outside in air filled with pollen was just too much for her fragile lungs. She was pretty excited that she might graduate though.
    What a rich, bright, colorful post, Gretchen. Thanks!!!


    1. This is the second time she’s been kicked out. (I kind of think death would be graduation, not discharge. As in “on to something better.”) How does she feel about it? The next day she asked me if she had a doctor appointment. Six days later she asked asked the ALF staff to take her blood pressure, she had some “pain around her heart.” They informed her it was a little high (for which I gave them hell), meaning it was normal instead of low. The day after that she asked me when her appointment is (April 13 😬.) She would much rather have the nurse coming every week to tell her she is fine. She thrives on medical attention.


  3. I so love hearing about the garden. Especially that it is a thing that can thrive in spite of us. I find the idea of a garden very intimidating but this post of yours feels like a beautiful permission to just let it be as it is and to know it will be okay. I will do my clumsy best.

    I also love that this is a shared garden … seeds planted by your Mom and tended by you both. There is so much life planted beneath your feet. It seems so fitting that the care will be passed on to you. Something really wonderful will happen as you plant more of YOU into it. Can’t wait to see what you create ♡

    And finally, I’m a sucker for “artifacts of distinction” … thanks for sharing the photos !

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Old gardens really are fun, aren’t they. Particularly when they offer shoots from bulbs you didn’t know were there. My vegetable plot is calling me – asparagus will soon appear, and the artichoke wants to move to another place. I’m hoping for Sunday afternoon, too. I think we’ve had even more rain here in Tacoma than you’ve had. The sump pump moaned at me all night long last night, but it seems to finally be brightening. I’m not holding out much hope, yet., though.

    Liked by 1 person

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