My mother was never very good at doing things for herself. She was all about others. However, thinking back on it, there is one thing I know she did solely for her own pleasure, just for herself: she foraged and picked bouquets. There were never any store-bought flowers in our house–unless dad got her some for an anniversary or some such occasion. But we had bouquets in the house most of the year–in late fall and even through Montana winters–she gathered dried stalks and interesting pods, putting them in artful arrangements. All of her bouquets were foraged and gathered from the hills behind our house, the woods by the lake, or out in the garden. She wasn’t a gardener, but she was glad for every flower my dad grew. Her bouquets were always beautiful and artistic. They were often unusual or stunning in their simplicity. Sometimes they were a simple arrangement of something like Indian paintbrush, where what you noticed was the orange or the red of the flower itself. She highlighted the flora of western Montana, always picking the vessel to hold it with care.
Some of my earliest memories of myself are of my picking flowers, making my own little bouquets. I know I grow flowers now so I can pick them. They give me great pleasure out in my garden; they give me pause and joy indoors. My house is like May Sarton’s house, it “…dies when there are no flowers” (Sarton, Journal of a Solitude).
Whenever I make a bouquet, forage for one from my hill or garden, I remember my mother. Perhaps I am my mother. I know that, at the very least, I feel the closest to this authentic part of my mom, craving beauty–gathering it, bringing it where it can be seen–delighted in and used as a reminder that there is beauty in this world.
You see, even before my mom’s long journey in the sticky, clingy darkness of chronic pain, she has battled various levels of depression all her life. I didn’t see it then, when I lived at home with her and it, but I see it now–her flower-gathering was her defiance against darkness, the sprig of life and hope inside of her demanding assertion.
This last week, my parents were able to come for a quick visit. The fact that my mother was coming was remarkable, as her health often keeps her from travel and many other things. To prepare for their coming, there was one main thing on my list: bouquets.
Spring has come to western Washington. The pieris is in bloom and so is the divine daphne. My camellias are budded, a little slower than some to burst forth, but their buds are ripe with promise. The heather is still going strong. There are Lenten roses and plenty of evergreen filler as well as new growth on the deciduous bushes. The forsythia is bright and cheery. I confess I am not a huge fan of forsythia outdoors, but I love to force it indoors during this gray spring time of transition, when I desperately need color, the outdoors, and signs of life. I grow it outside so I can bring it in.
I made bouquets to welcome my mom back into my home. I knew she would notice each and every one of them (she did). I knew they would bring her joy. Seattle is often dreary and a washed-out gray this time of year, but as I learned from my mother, you can usually find something beautiful to remind you of that which is alive and sunshiney and a sign of hope.
But now, every time I pick a bouquet, there is more that surfaces: gratitude that I still have my mother and that she is back to picking her own bouquets. She still struggles with the dark ugly of depression and the life-suck of chronic pain, but she is good enough to wage war on it with her flowers. There was a time when she could not. There was a time when she could not see a flower, let alone pick one.
During a portion of that period, she and my dad lived with my family. Things were so bad, so horrid, my dad was unable to care for her alone. I haven’t been able to write about that period (this is a fledgling attempt) because it was so, so dark. My mother was a shell of herself–one we daily struggled to keep alive, at times wondering why we were trying so hard (yes, we wondered) because her life was a living hell. Her darkness and her pain were so severe, it was all she could see. Her pain took up all the empty spaces and pushed aside much of what was in the other spots. We couldn’t leave her alone–not with her pills, not near water. She needed human touch to stay even remotely grounded because the pain was making her crazy. My dad would spend most of every day (I am not kidding here), rubbing her feet, touching them, reading outloud to her. I do make up she would not have survived without that grounding touch. Chronic pain guts you. It can make you lose your mind. It can make you unrecognizable.
I grieved during that period, feeling I had lost my mom. She was not my mom anymore–at least not the mom I recognized. I wrote this rather brutal poem during part of the worst of that period, where my dad could scarcely leave my mother’s side, when it was all so very bad:
Deus Absconditus (hidden God)
I shall write of my mother
of how, still living, she is lost to me;
of my father, a lap dog with a leash
who must stay close to home;
of the two crows perched silently
(for once) on the telephone wire
a small boy’s prayers stab
my already rent heart
he wants his grandma back
on the floor in absorbed play
and I, what do I want?
a pile of rocks and a pair of hands
that form terraces on the hillside
a voice devoid of pain carrying over waves
a mom who reads books and bakes bread
who doesn’t force hunger or interest
who takes joy in the wildflowers
she used to pick
This poem takes me back to the darkness that was so dense, to one of the times when God was so very hidden from my sight. Thus, when I picked bouquets this last week in preparation for my mother’s visit, I felt a deep gratitude–that my mother is back picking flowers, back enjoying bouquets. She will never be quite as carefree as she was at times, marked and scarred as she has been by hell, but she is not wandering lost in the regions of darkness, accessible to none.
You can’t go through pain and be unchanged by it. I am convinced of this. But how we are changed by our pain can look very, very different. I will write on this more, another time. It is too much for now.
Today, I will pick flowers. I will take joy in what brings me joy. If I can do that, I bet my family–perhaps others–will notice. I bet it will have an effect. At the very least, it will bring beauty to darkness, light and air into confined spaces. And I will see it. I will know what has taken place.
I will bear witness to the power and strength of beauty.
So I will ask: What brings you joy?
What do you do that is just for you?
I implore you to pick your own form of flowers. Do what brings you joy. We need you doing this. We really do.
Grace and beauty today,