The Funereal Flower

Memory is a funny thing. I have no idea why I have kept this one with me all these years.

It was in the spring of 1993. Scott and I were preparing for our wedding in July, that year. Though I had almost no experience as a gardener, I was big on self-sufficiency, so I decided I would plant flowers for the wedding.

I had no knowledge of types of flowers beyond the most basic and I knew nothing about blooming phases. I liked the looks of them, so I planted gladiolus. I'm sure I planted other things, but that's the one that made this particular memory stick with me for twenty-four years.

Early that summer we went to visit some of Scott's relatives, on Long Island. We were returning home, taking the ferry — the Orient Point Ferry, probably, right? That part I can't recall. I was sitting near a woman and we made conversation. She did landscape work and I told her about the wedding flowers I had planted. "What did you plant?" she asked.

"Gladiolus!" I exclaimed proudly.

"Oh," she said, quietly, "the funereal flower."

I have no idea what we talked about after that, but I have never forgotten that line: the funereal flower. My heart sank there on the ferry, thinking about how I had planted funeral home flowers for my wedding.

After twenty-four years of living in Vermont, I know a little bit more about gardening. And over those many years I have fallen deeply in love with flowers. I have dreamed of a garden of all almost-black flowers: dahlias and pansies and tulips, hollyhocks, all of the deepest purples that are very close to black. I have imagined an all-white garden, too, an homage to Emily Dickinson and her white dresses, intoxicating poetry and ... green thumb. Emily spent her whole life tending to the incredible gardens on her family's land in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I am drawn, when I travel, to public gardens. Fordham, where I will be next week, and where I have been studying for an M.A. in pastoral care for the past few years, is across the street from the New York Botanical Garden. There you will find me in the evenings, after class. I almost lost my mind when I went to the Montreal Botanical Garden a few years ago in the spring: I had never seen so many different kinds of peonies. Dinner at Shelburne Farms, here in Vermont, is a wonderful thing, but walking through the gardens there is the even greater pleasure. Go to Yaddo sometime, if you are in Saratoga. To write, if you are lucky and talented enough, or to walk the gardens if you have an afternoon.

The beautiful thing about gardening is that it humbles you freshly each new spring. You are close to the earth, digging, turning, thinning. Everything aches at the end of the day. Each new planting season brings fresh dreams. What should we try this year? (white pumpkins) What did we plant too much of last year? (cherry tomatoes, oddly). What has taken over? (violets!).

I inherited tremendously abundant perennial gardens when I moved into this house last fall, and I understand my responsibility in care-taking them while I am here. We are all, of course, passing through place and time and I feel very lucky to have landed right here, right now. Every day brings some new discovery: a little patch of Lily of the Valley tucked in the woods, a very sweet and delicate yellow flower I can't identify, blooming way in the back of the gardens to the north of the house. There are raspberries and blueberries, apples, and the sage and mint and thyme I planted last year in the raised beds are back. 

I have done flowers for weddings, I have made bouquets for brides and boutonnieres for grooms. When I lived in Charlotte and had a shop, Abel & Lovely, I made regular visits to the flower warehouse in South Burlington. There is nothing quite like roaming through their cooler rooms full of flowers to cure the winter blues.

I have friends who are superstar floral designers: Ariella Chezar and Chris Hessney were just chosen by Harper's Bazaar magazine as two of the top ten best wedding florists in the country. A couple of years ago Ariella did my window boxes for the house in Charlotte; now she does flowers at the White House (or rather, she did, not long ago, when it was inhabited by decent human beings). Chris and I daydreamed, when he had a floral design business in Vermont, of all the great ideas and plans we had for the flower life. He is living it now, in New York, and I am delighted for him.

The flower itch has never left me, despite the early wedding/funereal debacle. Being with plants and growing things puts me in a whole other world. I talk to the plants when I am in the garden weeding. I move slowly; my fingernails fill with dirt. I think about the rain and the sun from their point of view. I think about the idea of invasives and weeds. Says who? I wonder as I survey the landscape and see how it all fits together so perfectly. All God's creatures got a place in the choir, right? 

I am no longer a fan of gladiolus, however, and not because of the funereal association. Just because ... I don't know. I prefer hollyhocks and foxglove. When I create arrangements now I like to use flowers and herbs and berries. I like surprises. And flowers are nothing if not endlessly surprising and delightful and seductive.

I have mentioned this in a few previous posts: my head has been hurting and we don't know why, yet. My car is not working, and we don't know why, yet. My hospice work is winding down, for now. And so it is that the world has conspired to keep my life quiet and small. If it were not for these gifts: the aching head that asks me to slow down; the broken car that requires me to stay put and the shifting of my work life that frees up space in my days, I would not be spending as much time with the plants, in the dirt and the rain and sun. There is no question that life does, indeed, give us what we need when we need it. Amen.