Black-Eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susans                                                                                                                               

For years, they'd simply been plants and flowers; admired, for sure, but nameless, as I grew up in a bucolic area nestled in Yonkers. It was Mom who knew their identities. She planted annuals and tended perennials in her English (or cottage) garden, radiant with deep red primroses and pink hollyhocks. The English garden has a loose, unruly order, as if the fragile lives there have chosen to sprout serendipitously to fend for themselves in nature.

I see Mom now, all these years since, kneeling on her gardening pad, trowel in hand, thick gardening gloves, leaning over as she digs in the rich earth among her peonies, phlox, and hydrangeas. She’s creating a home for another of her delphiniums, massaging the roots to free them from their hothouse pot-bound existence, filling a wide 10” hole she has just dug, then pushing moist soil and compost into the cavity, packing the dirt to secure the young plant, watering it in.

I imagine her in the company of her tribe of multi-colored, diverse shapes and heights, leaves casting their oval or sword-like silhouettes on the lawn beside her. After a few hours, the wind tussling and the sun beginning to set, her gloves and trowel placed in the tool basket, she’s finished ‘til morning.

She gardened every day, away from her worries, in the moment, with the scent of wet earth, blooms telegraphing sweet aromas to attract bumble bees and hummingbirds, the rich soil healthy from numerous worms.

It wasn’t until the last of my beloved cats died of old age that I refocused my attention to nurturing life in my own yard. While for years, plants, for me, had amorphous identities, they soon became individuals with unique characters. I wanted to know them: the wildflowers, tall, gangly, needing stakes to stand secure; the easygoing begonias in pots on my deck, and the rugged hostas pushing reckless strings of purple blooms in all directions.

Yet it is the Black-eyed Susans that connect me most to Mom; the Susans that stretch to the sun and breathe a sigh after I pull out weeds crowding them; I could almost hear their thank you’s this recent summer of drought as their roots captured moisture from the sprinkler.

Decorative low-growing annuals like short yellow marigolds had controlled the edges of Mom’s garden. But the Black-eyed Susans represented her more resilient, freer side. Perhaps because of their hardiness, their grit in winter? She seemed to connect most with (and talked about) the Susans. Their bold black faces, surrounded by dazzling yellow, challenging any adversity attempting to thwart them.

My hostas, petunias and, of course, my black-eyed Susans are enabling me to process my own grief. Their nurturing qualities my mother must have intuited, when I couldn’t have known (and she wouldn’t have told me) about her own pain: The pain of an early childhood trauma; of unrealized dreams of performing professionally; of a domestic life with few chances to travel; her tour of duty in the Caribbean as a sergeant in the US Army before her marriage, her most significant experiment with autonomy.

As with all of us, there was joy and remorse. The healing of new life emerging and thriving transported her into a botanical oasis where she could process her regrets. Or forget about them.

While I don’t anticipate becoming as sophisticated a gardener as Mom, or to establish anything close to her elaborate English garden, I’ve discovered that learning the names of these individuals and nurturing their specific needs, is a way to nourish myself. I’ve also discovered another level of connection with my mother, now that I understand how her hollyhocks, delphiniums, and those exuberant Susan’s held hope and promise for her, their lush growth a satisfying symbol of refuge and healing.

Published in Continue the Voice online “zine” BOTANICALS issue at the end of October 2022.

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