Pleasures of Life Dept.

Flowers for Mama

Beauty floating in a coffee mug

By Katherine Smith

It was 3 a.m. on Mother’s Day. I was 19, driving home from a night walking through Weymouth with a certain boy my parents didn’t know about. On my lap, I balanced a bouquet of sunflowers, picked up from a 24/7 grocery store, hoping that my mom would be so delighted to discover them in the morning that she would forget to ask me where I had been.

I parked a block away from home, tiptoed down the driveway, and carefully pulled on the squeaky kitchen door. It was locked. The noise alerted my mom’s huge German shepherd, who was even more anxious than usual with my dad working out of town. Hoping to quiet Zulu before she woke everyone up, I ran around to the back porch doors, which were indeed open, and met my mom in her camo pajamas, holding a rifle. Despite my shielding myself with her favorite flowers, Mom did indeed ask me where on earth I had been.

These days, while I still often find myself driving to my parents’ house in the middle of the night, Zulu now sleeps in their closed bedroom, and I have a front door key. Somewhere between Interstate 40 and the back roads of Seagrove, I will stop to pick up flowers for my mama. Dogwood twigs, half a dozen daffodils, or a single magnolia blossom float intoxicatingly beside me in an unwashed coffee mug on the console the whole way home.

Beauty is my mom’s love language. We five kids were raised with climbing roses, azalea coves leading to white wicker dreaming chairs, beefsteak tomatoes bursting from their cages and onto our dinner plates, antique furniture refinished from someone’s roadside trash pile, and living room walls revived each year by fresh buckets of goldenrod, sienna and merlot paint. When Mom left her only home in Moore County to follow my dad to his new job in Texas a few years back, it was with wrought-iron hanging baskets of ferns, seed packets of kitchen herbs, and buttercups hand-painted on thrifted plates. We all knew Mom was terribly homesick, but she resolutely held beauty close, and it fed her straight from her senses to her marrow.

Only when I moved thousands of miles away to Alaska did I understand this necessity of homegrown beauty. All winter, I walked in circles around the garden section of Lowe’s Hardware, just for the home smell. I bought a new houseplant nearly every weekend, ordered more seeds than I’d ever be able to plant, built a growshelf from recycled shop lights, and a small greenhouse out of PVC pipe.

In the place where stark independence met the nostalgia of being cared for, I grew my first garden. Along with hardy Swiss chard and kale, I planted the marigolds I grew up with, trained sugar snap peas up willow tepees, and, against all odds, grew a few small tomatoes and jalapeños in my little greenhouse. When my first zucchini bulged from its papery yellow blossom and into my palm, my life was changed. I saw, as my mother must have years ago, that flowers are a necessary beauty, the archetype of potential, the very perpetuation of new, green, life. I saw my mother, just as she must have seen hers, in a pregnant bloom.

This Mother’s Day finds Mom and me both back in our Carolina home soil. In my small garden, I am growing up again, reared by the beauty that is my mother’s literal namesake. Motherwort spreads its bitter calm with blessed mint-family invasiveness. Matricaria chamomilla grows tall and feathery, “the herb for babies of all ages,” as my teacher likes to say. And when I get on the highway in the middle of the night to drive a few short hours into her arms, my mama no longer asks me where I’ve been. She just embraces me, as we have both learned to do with perennials on the first day of summer, and says, “I’m so glad you came.”  PS

Katherine Smith grew up swinging from ivy vines and hunting water lilies in Pinebluff, N.C. She’s returned to North Carolina to study clinical herbalism at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine in Lowgap, calling Ireland and Alaska home in the interim.

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