My mother loved the country.
Though she was and considered herself to be a New Yorker through-and-through, there was a part of her that yearned to hole up in a wooded cottage somewhere and nest. I don’t know what it was in particular that inspired this in her, and I guess I never will.
Each summer, we packed a rental car with our belongings and cat and headed south to our little corner of the wilderness, a small rural town in northwest Connecticut. The cottage was actually more of a cabin, if I am to be precise, with walls stained a dark brown from years of exposure to pipe smoke.
Though the cabin didn’t belong to us, my mother took it upon herself to put in a garden. It started quite by accident. We were whipping down one of the numerous back roads, Mom driving too fast (as she was apt to do) with all the windows rolled down, when she stopped the car abruptly. She never said a word, just bounded out of the car and stooped low, hands in the underbrush. Scrabbling there a minute, she remained crouched like a frog until finally she rose, triumphant, with an unruly bunch of greenery in her hand.
“It’s a fern!” she shouted to me.
The fern, a soft flag of a plant with impossibly intricate leaves, was the first of many to be uprooted at the roadside and placed firmly and with confidence outside the cabin’s door. I remained my mother’s faithful assistant, walking by her side as we scoured the hills and ditches for flowers and pleasant weeds, hair wet from a midday swim in the lake. Sometimes we explored in our nightgowns as the sun began to sink, thick and golden, behind the protective trees that surrounded us.
As we went, my mother called each plant out by common name, which I imagine she learned either as a child herself, from a book, or both. I absorbed this information with an ease I no longer possess: Queen Anne’s Lace. Black-Eyed Susan. Wild Rose. Phlox. Jewelweed. Bladderwort. I was the sort of child who read field guides cover-to-cover, pouring over pictures of gems and trees and plants and birds, inhaling the faint tang of 1970s printing ink for hours at a time. But this was the real deal. Something unlocked in me there, amidst the graceful wilds of the town we stayed in, and I stepped boldly, barefoot, into adventure.
The garden expanded. My mother enrolled me in a day camp at a flower and herb farm not far from the cabin. It was a delicious place with a two-story “barn” filled with dried flowers. There I pressed leaf samples onto index cards, cementing them in place with sheets of contact paper. Our counselor, a sweet woman with a long brunette ponytail, took us through the neat flowerbeds and introduced us to the friendly goat, Jezebel, who ruled the small animal pen. We read Peter Rabbit aloud and ate our lunch on mossy rocks, handing our leftovers to Jezebel, who nibbled them away and nuzzled our palms with her soft nose.
At the farm, and with my mother at the local nursery, I began to learn the names of the less wild, more domesticated plants: Laurel, Yarrow, Rue and Lamb’s Ear. There were Geraniums, which smelled like damp dust, and Alyssum, which filled the air with the scent of fresh honey. Crates of these plants went into my mother’s garden, blossoms heavy on their stalks. We surrounded them with stones and weeded with gusto, my mother in a floppy straw had and I in a yellow sun visor.
Those days were long and filled with swimming, reading, and planting. I slept hard at night, the buoyancy of the lake water still cradling my little body, dreaming of vines and earthworms, dense soil and smooth rocks, of pulling myself under the surface of the lake and looking up at the floating sunshine above.
Today, I am not much of a gardener, and have not visited the cabin in almost fifteen years. My mother has been gone for nineteen now, but, miraculously, the names of the plants she loved remain firmly in my memory. They are as a part of me as my childhood home, as my oldest friends, as anything else my mother gave or told to me. I like to think of her there, kneeling in front of the cabin with her hands in the soil, fostering life from the earth she has returned to.