A few weeks ago, a large box arrived at our doorstep. Inside was a beautiful vase and a brief note that indicated it was from my grandmother, who passed away nearly a decade ago. My internal voice of reason dismissed the possibility of Swedish glass from beyond the grave, so I assumed it was a generous gesture of my uncle who is the executor of my grandparents’ estate.
Just last week, I received a copy of the letter that explained the vase. My uncle had sent each of the nine granddaughters (four by blood, five by marriage) one of these vases as a reminder of my grandmother and her love for flowers. In the letter, my uncle described my Southern grandmother (Margaret Bernardine Derr or simply ‘Bern’dene’) as someone who was very conscious of social status and didn’t share much of herself with others, unless it was about her gardens. As my uncle explained better than I could ever paraphrase,
“There was one area where Bern’dene did seem to lower her guard—her flower gardens. It was the one interest that her dubiously matched parents shared, and bequeathed to their children. Flora [my great grandmother] raised her tea roses, hydrangeas and perennials while Albert [my great grandfather] grew his tomato plants, horseradish, and chewing tobacco. Wherever we moved, Bern’dene was planting bulbs before the van stopped rolling. The Derrs were always great contributors to the May processions of each church we attended, with tulips and hyacinths and jonquils and lilacs abounding. It was a rare occasion when our parish’s statue of St. Joseph (a carpenter [like her father]) did not have a vase of cut flowers before it, courtesy of Margaret Bernardene. Flowers were her way of safely connecting with other people, regardless of their respective rung. Flowers ran interference for her with church ladies and nurses and the boss’ wife from Radcliffe. They cut the ice. They explained her to new acquaintances without the risk sharing too many stubborn facts about herself. Anyone can understand daffodils.
“And now, so many years after, flowers are the one, remaining association I have with Mom. The rose gardens, the tulip beds, the vases of purple lilacs before wooden saints—speak more of Margaret Bernardene than anything she ever said or did. It’s what’s left. Not a bad epitaph—a vase of opening roses.
“Finally, I wanted to do something as a gesture to my mother’s granddaughters. Too many things left undone, words unspoken, as we stumble through. I like things tied up with a bow at the end. So I thought that sending a vase to all of you would be a lasting gesture that would pass on the best part of your grandmother to you and your children. No matter how different we all are in this curious family, the love of growing things is something we all share. Go figure.
“So, when you arrange your flowers in this vase, think of Bernardene. I know she’ll be thinking of you, and praying for you, comfortably ensconced upon whichever rung she has ascended to.”
Although my uncle officially sent the vase to my wife, I know my grandmother would have wanted me to enjoy it as well. As I’ve written about before, my earliest memories of plants were her roses. She, more than any other person in my life, is responsible for my connection to the soil.
So, today, I walked through my garden with pruners in hand, but my grandmother on my mind and in my heart. I imagined what it might be like to share my garden with my her. When I was done, I’d assembled a bouquet to christen the vase that will forever remind me of my grandmother, a rose prominently featured in the center just as she would have it.
My uncle said it best — not a bad epitaph.