Do you remember when I told you how I love wild violets? I love them when their little purple faces first peek up out of the ground soon after the crocuses have thrust their heads up. Crocuses emerge in their amazing way, right up through snow, surprising us with nearly forgotten promise of color to come.
Then the season progresses and we move later into spring. Miniature roses in hues of coral, orange and yellow bloom in abundance on my balcony. The azaleas have almost finished their glorious displays of fuchsia, pink, and wedding gown white. We are planting summer annuals — celosia, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, and impatiens.
Still the cool weather permits the pansies to hold their own, even as heat-loving perennials begin to emerge. Pansies, with their cheerful, friendly, diverse faces – each individual contributes to a multihued palette of irrepressible color.
And as we put order into our patchwork garden, I begin to see why the violets, their blooms spent, seem like little intruders in the scheme of things. For a short time they are sprightly heralds of the rebirth of the Earth in springtime. Later in the season they consist of heart shaped raggedy green patches popping up erratically around the lawn and garden. Wild violets are free and hard to uproot, yet their time of flowering in the garden is fairly brief. Thus it is with most spring flowers, thus their value, their heartbreakingly short-lived significance.
Planting and tending our gardens is one way we may become co-creators with the Universe, stewards of beauty and delight. Gardening encourages us to live in a state of awe and reverence. Despite the drudgery of tilling soil and pulling weeds, gardening becomes a sacred act.
In commemoration of my daughter Heather’s birthday in November, I bought some pansies. Now pansies, I have to tell you, are cousins to the wild violets. They share a common family name in the botanical classification system: Violaceae. Viola wittrockiana is the horticultural name of the cultivated pansy; Viola papilionacea is its weedy and wilder relative.
The pansies I planted in little pots in memory of Heather were apricot, orange, and yellow; also palest sunrise pink with an occasional splash of deep purple. I set the pots on the railing of the kitchen deck where their cheerful faces greeted me every day. Proud and sturdy, their delicate appearance of fragility contradicted resilience for withstanding winter’s blasts of frost, sleet, snow, or wind. Joyous in the bright calm cold solstice air, these little potted flowers were a birthday present given to Heather and right back to me.
Gardening has taught me that death is a natural process, a natural transition, perhaps a mere breath from one form of life into the next. This lesson has been a great gift to me. Nothing can stop the seasons from rolling around and around each and every year.
Year after year in autumn, we plant pansies to brighten the landscape through winter and into spring. Unlike the wild violets, they need sowing and nurturance. Like the wild violets, they possess the sturdy ability to withstand harsh winter weather. Their little upturned faces peeping through blankets of snow remind us that Life prevails. Until I developed an appreciation for gardening as a balm for grieving, I did not understand the desire of many gardeners to eradicate the violets as mere weeds. Common little violets are lovely when they bloom in the spring. But as the weather warms, their delicate blossoms fade, leaving persistent colonies of vegetation that spread with abandon. Their dense, fibrous root system enables them to encroach upon the flowerbeds sown and cultivated with design.
You see, there’s a tension in the gardening process. Do I let nature take its course or do I impose my own landscaping ideas? Do I turn the garden over to God, or do I demonstrate stewardship by helping Mother Nature tidy up?
Similarly, I am trying to balance the tension between grief for my dead family and gratitude for my new life. It is a tough balancing act, because the grief continues to reassert itself into the present time. In the fresh comeliness of their blooms, the violets are a joy. But as leftovers, the rampant weedy patches simply threaten the aesthetics of the garden. Rooting them out, I make way for pattern and design.
And I’ve learned to give grief its due, but then to root out the chaos of overwhelming mourning. Sadness will never be gone from my heart, just as I will never eradicate the root system of the wild violets in my lawn and garden. I know they’ll return next year, and I know I’ll welcome them. But when they are no longer pretty, I’ll dispense with them. So it is that I will dispense with weeping out of season, and get on with authentic composition of the remainder of my life.
I had one daughter born during the time of the pansies’ reign in the autumn garden, and I had another daughter born during the spring, when the wild violets have reasserted their fearless tenacious little selves through the thawing earth. Heather was born in the fall of the year, and for her I planted the pansies. Holly, four and a half years younger, came along in May, when the wild violets sprout and bloom of their own accord.
In May, on the anniversary of Holly’s birthday and to commemorate her life, I placed arrangements of colorful flowers on the altar at our church. From my garden, I gathered snapdragons – mostly yellow, but a few reds and pinks – white spirea, and red Jupiter’s beard. From the florist, I bought purple liatris, tiny green mums, and some white baby’s breath. From these various stems I crafted two symmetrical bouquets to honor the memory of one of my dead daughters.
True to the ordered cycle of life’s processes, the pansies as well as the bouquets of spring flowers are dead now. Sadly, my girls too are dead, and I will always miss them terribly. Sometimes my grief sticks in my throat and threatens to choke me. Other times I feel the girls are still with me, playful gossamer sprites tickled to see their mother creating a new life.
That is the tension – between the losing and the gaining, the giving up and the receiving, the weeding out and the nurturing. Finally, between florid sentimentality and the authentic work of crafting a well tended life.
Embrace the tension. Rejoice in it, for it gives you a full and rich life.
Terry Jones-Brady 2011