Each November, I lift brown bulbs from a mesh bag, dust off papery skins, and place the ugly lumps in a glass bowls filled with pebbles. Given sufficient light and water, these inauspicious items will produce lovely flowers in a few weeks. And I mark another year.
My mother’s emerald thumb found her planting pansies each spring. In autumn, she massed chrysanthemums on the brick front steps. Each winter, she coaxed paper whites, Amaryllis bulbs and Christmas cactuses into profuse displays.
Gardenias flowered year-round under her grow lights. In our closed-in porch, on two counters, edged in copper and filled with pebbles for drainage, she would tend seedlings, re-pot, root cuttings. She lifted fertilizer with a tiny spoon, dissolving neon blue crystals in pitchers of water to nourish all she grew. I learned early that we must prune and clip to help plants grow–good advice for mothering.
Love is rooted in generations. My narcissus bulbs shoot green stems up and white roots down among the pebbles. They find some purchase there, snaking through the water, growing down to go up. A paradox. We hunker down to raise up children, who grow brave and strong and leave us. In my own grown daughters, I glimpse their toddler selves–independent, resilient, enchanting, occasionally gripped by temper. At certain moments, too, I glimpse the man my son will become, the tilt of his head, his adult response to a situation, his ability to hold his own at the dinner table when his sisters and their significant others swoop in for the holidays.
In early December, I water my bulbs, noting the inches of green. I miss my mom and wish I could call her to tell her the stalks are starting to stretch to the light, wish I could tell her about her grandchildren, hear her calm wise voice reminding me that things often look better in the morning. Sometimes, I still reach for the phone, forgetting she can’t answer. She has been gone almost nine years. I miss my daughters, too, returned after Thanksgiving to their own lives, busy, not home anymore.
Returning from college at seventeen, I found home no longer fit. My mother irritated me. Our cluttered house exasperated me—half-done projects, piles of papers, as if Mom had simply been interrupted in the midst and had abandoned the task. My father still—annoyingly– stowed Archway cookies under the front seat of his car. Plants still grew on the closed-in porch, but they seemed dispirited, my mother frailer. I thought I would have grown a new family somehow, but we were still imperfect, still ourselves. I was desperate to return to my “real” life at college.
Is that is how our girls find us, I wonder? Slightly fusty, distracted, paler versions of ourselves? More like bulbs than blooms? Now, I cringe at my mother’s generous forgiveness of my careless departures, again and again. I assumed she would be there—steady—always. At Thanksgiving, I lift the bowls—blue, red, green, yellow—that nestled on my mother’s pantry shelf. In them, I mix stuffing, pie filling. My mother rarely cooked, but the bowls remind me of her.
The ritual of planting paperwhites consoles me, my own holiday ritual. I explain to our Turkish exchange student that one morning, the buds will swell and bloom, scenting our home with their delicate spicy fragrance–indoor snowflakes. She looks at the little lumps perched on colored pebbles in wonderment, not quite believing. I love having her with us, a daughter who doesn’t leave until June.
I tell her that the stalks will occasionally falter, canting towards the window. I’ll stake them with a chopstick and tie the green stems to a scrap of ribbon I keep in the top drawer of the sideboard—another vestige from my girlhood. Eventually, their ivory flowers withered, I will toss the bulbs, wash the pebbles, store the bowls in the corner cupboard until next fall. She smiles, happy to wait with me to see the magic.
Our daughters come and go; our son grows. I try to enjoy our time, to resist comparing it to what it ought to be, to lower my expectations during big family events, to focus on the small, satisfying bits that endure year to year. Our roots mingle beneath the water’s surface, entwined among the pebbles, life-giving.