It was a long winter. I love tall boots and long coats and hot coffee, but even for me, it was a long, long winter. Spring has arrived suddenly and intensely here in Western New York; the flowering trees have bloomed so thickly it occasionally looks like it’s snowing again when the wind blows, and we have to mow the lawn approximately every 20 seconds. The dogs want to spend most of the day outside, and Nelson in particular would be happy to sunbathe in the back yard until he was crispy.
Our back yard is kind of a funny thing, because it’s half the reason we bought the house. It’s not all that big, but it was already securely fenced and had a nice little bit of modest landscaping, and since we were only planning for one dog at the time, we thought yes, this is a decent, serviceable yard. However, if you follow us on instagram, you probably know that we’ve mostly destroyed it: the picturesque, weathered stockade fenced is largely covered with plywood to keep the reactive members of the family from going ham at the neighboring dogs, about 40 percent of the grass died a horrible death to Nelson’s pee, and the two flowering bushes are now just roots (until Celia finds those too). What was once a feature of the house now makes me feel guilty and stressed-out, and since I have plenty of other things to feel guilty and stressed-out about, I decided to focus on the front of the house this year.
With curb appeal in mind, I did what any self-respecting wannabe adult would do and called my mom. I don’t really like to say my mom has a green thumb, because that makes the thousands of hours she’s spent planting, weeding, watering, and pruning sound like some kind of luck, so maybe it’s better to say my mom is a really good gardener. She has been for as long as I can remember. She transformed every place we lived into a blossoming paradise, hauling bags of mulch, loads of topsoil and gallons of water until every bee, butterfly, and hummingbird in the tri-state area probably knew our address. Trays of seedlings usually occupy every sunny corner of the house, and every time I visit there’s a new bed, or plans for a new bed, or a gorgeous new tumble of blooms in a pot. There’s nothing mysterious about it; it’s sweaty, back-breaking, dirt-under-the-fingernails work, and she has put the hours in.
Given all that, it was no surprise my mom had plenty of ideas for me. She knew the names of plants I could only kind-of describe — “They’re like, drapey and the leaves are really bright?” — and what would go well with them, and she picked me up some window boxes because she “just happened” to be out, and she grabbed “just a few little plants” she thought I might like. After that, she drove all the way to my house, didn’t let me pay for any of the flowers she bought, and spent half the day putting together boxes and baskets, all on the day before Mother’s Day. I don’t have a great track record of keeping green things alive, so she gave me good instructions.
“Petunias don’t like to be rained on,” she told me.
Now, I don’t know how a flower decided it’s too good for the only water some plants will get their whole lives, but that’s the kind of stuff my mom knows, not me. So far, I’ve kept everything alive. Our house now looks like it’s inhabited by people who have their shit together, at least from the sidewalk. Every time I leave or come home, I take a second to admire the blooms spilling over the front of the boxes. However, as lovely as that is, the biggest gift my mom gave me that day was just letting me watch her plant.
I prize competence above a lot of things, and I realize that sounds like something a robot would probably say, but hear me out. Watching people do what they love or what they’re good at is comforting. When my mom is tending to her flowers, she’s in her element. She knows the answers to all of the questions. Her movements are always sure, and I find that reassuring. My mom has always had distinctly “mom” hands — a little bit bigger than mine, stronger than mine, somehow impervious to dishwater you could boil a lobster in — and when they’re covered in dirt, nestling little plants into the ground, all feels right with the world. Sure, I love flowers, but in it’s an outsider’s way; I spent five minutes at a time trying to cajole root-bound Dusty Millers out of their little plastic containers, had to ask if the holes were deep enough, if the soil was damp enough. My mom knows this all by heart; all of these things are muscle-memory, cultivated over thousands of hours of planting, weeding, watering, and pruning. She knows the plants, and sometimes it almost seems like the plants know her.
A few days after that, Kat Von D posted a video of a petunia the likes of which I had never seen before. A “rare petunia,” the caption said, and since we’d been oohing and aahing over some other petunias a few days before, I sent it to Mom for fun. We oohed and aahed over that one too, and that was that. Except, later that afternoon, she sent me this: