My Mother was a Master Gardener
My mother was a master gardener. I used to love wandering her garden picking raspberries off the bush or cherry tomatoes off the vine and popping them right into my mouth. I honestly tried to channel her the first time I grew anything from seed. I asked myself probably a million times, “What would Mom do?” She was so confident in her skills that she sometimes even disregarded the directions on the seed packet, obliging instead her own internal authority. She was like a magician. When I imagine her garden, I see long, untamed vines snaking the earthen floor, dotted with magnetic fuchsias or bearing enormous orange pumpkins. I see towering yellow sunflowers courting bees and hairy tomato vines playing host to the age-old battle between ladybug and aphid. Being in her garden felt like being in a fairytale, a mysterious world full of even smaller worlds. I could not believe that every year, she created this wonderland of shapes and flavors and colors from seemingly nothing. It was as if her garden was the one place that she ran totally free, completely unhindered, where there were no rules by which to comply, no borders to stay behind, no dotted lines to sign, no correct change to give back. In the summer, I remember catching fireflies alongside her wonderland night after night, long into the darkness, long after the humidity of the day stretched past the summer twilight, where dots of light seemed to magically appear in the sky before quickly fading away again. And her voice calling me: “Misia!” These are some of my most magical memories.
Today, as a scientist, I have been trained to look for and stringently test the evidence I use to support whatever claims I make about primate behavior. But even now, even with this trained brain, I cannot deny that I still look for the magic of my mother’s garden. About three years ago, when her Alzheimer’s first started getting into the bad phase, I sat outside under a summer moon and prayed. I was desperate to know if she was there somewhere behind the increasingly impenetrable wall that Alzheimer’s slowly built around her. Where was she? Did she know? Was she there, or are we really just our brains? Because according to the evidence, all we can account for is the physical. Are we something more, something beyond that, something beyond the physical? I started talking to my mom directly as I sat underneath that summer moon three years ago. If you’re there, I insisted, then please show me. Show me something. Please shake this stubborn, evidence-driven brain because I want to know that you can hear me in ways I cannot explain. Tell me something clear. Tell me with a firefly.
And I left it there. I went to bed a little teary-eyed, and by the next morning, the whole exchange had become something of a distant memory, like a faded dream. That morning, I made my coffee, went outside to drink it, sat down, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, a small, dark shape flitted from the corner of my eye to land right below my right collarbone. It happened so quickly: just as I looked down to catch a glimpse of it, it was already on its way again. And as you can probably guess, it was a firefly. I have never before and never since seen one during the morning. Just that one time, just when I asked my mom.
Perhaps now is a good time to say that my mother understood things in a way I had never realized when I was growing up. My parents, of course, were not enamored with my lifestyle of traveling, particularly when it came to traveling on my own. Before my second trip to Cameroon, for example, I made a visit back to Chicago and told my parents I was planning to go back to work with chimpanzees again. I braced myself for the usual barrage of feedback. “Why can’t you have a normal life?” “When are you going to settle down?” “Are you still going to be doing this at 40?” After about two days of talking about this ad nauseum, my mom stopped suddenly, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “I get it, Misia. Some things we have to do. Go.”
Saying this, I know, contradicted everything she felt as a mother. But something in her arose in that moment, and in the briefest of glimpses, I understood what I still can’t quite put into words. It was the same thing that I remember from the wild beauty of her garden. My mother was a beautiful, curious, and yes, somewhat wild soul, and I have struggled over the past couple of days to close this homage to her, because like everything beautiful and curious and wild … how do you close it? To me, she is how I remember her garden: untamed and alive and fruitful. So, in the end, at this particular end, there is no closure to this homage. We go on, with her, beautiful and curious and wild.
No words will ever be enough to comfort someone who had to let go of their mama (in the physical realm). As you wrote a while ago, she was your FIRST of so many things.
But your memories of her, the memories you created together are forever a part of who you are. She lives on within you. Talk about her, cherish those moments by sharing them over and over. It will keep her close to you. I never did as my dad and brother (for their own reasons) never could/did and that was the real loss for me. She sounded wonderful your mum. I have a garden and you are so right. Your mom was magical because creating this wonderful fairyland from nothing isn’t easy at all. How amazing that must have been to wander around all that beauty.
I also read another post of yours and you already (so close after her passing) seem to understand it all.. it’s about the LOVE that remains. In the end, after stripping all the bullshit, love is all that remains.
Big hugs x
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