When I go on vacation, I usually return home with fewer than a dozen photos. It’s not that I don’t like photos, it’s that in the moment, I’m too busy enjoying the experience to be bothered by snapping photos. If I’m standing barefoot in the wet, cold sand of Pfeiffer Beach in January and the wind is pelting my face with sand and salty mist while waves crash violently along the rocky shore, I am feeling something so remarkable, pulling out my phone to take photos would ruin it completely.
I know everyone has their own favorite way of preserving memories. For some it’s photos, for others, objects that once belonged to a loved one are significant. One way I remember my life story is through my garden. Our yard is vibrantly alive, dynamic and interactive, and it evokes memories at every turn. Plants produce offspring that can be passed down through families, traded among friends and even taken to new homes. Each plant can remind you of a person, a time in life, a favorite home, the person you used to be or even something sad.
When I was a kid, the first home I remember living in had a shady front yard that was overrun with Lily of the Valley. They were my favorite. As a young child, I would pick them and examine the tiny delicate white bells. The best part though was the scent – I could smell them all day. When I got a little older, my mother used to buy me a perfume that was scented like Lily of the Valley. I didn’t plant them, but our current yard has these ubiquitous little flowers now and even today, I can’t resist picking and smelling them while thinking about my childhood home.
Before I married Mr. President, I lived in historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a charming little village I used to walk through nearly every day. I loved my solitary walks there looking at the beautiful old homes along my route. One of the homes was on a corner and had a crazy cool garden that wrapped around the front and side. This was right around the time I was starting to get interested in gardening. Before I knew what they were called, I noticed these huge trumpet-shaped fragrant white flowers that bloomed at night in masses on top of large sprawling vines. The flowers perfumed the air as I walked by at night, and I could never resist stopping on the sidewalk to take in every detail of that cottage garden.
I never met or talked to the resident gardener until Rob and I were engaged and I was preparing – with mixed feelings – to sell my beloved first home and move to suburban Philly to live in his place. One night, Rob and I were walking my route together when we saw the woman responsible for that gorgeous garden. I would normally not have said anything to her, but Rob encouraged me to say hello. Within minutes, I was gushing about how much I admired her lovely garden and especially the huge white flowers. She told me they were moonflowers.
To my delight, the woman gave me some seedlings for my garden. I planted them in Rob’s yard, which was soon to be my yard, too. I nurtured the little plants until they became the envy of our neighbors. Because the plants prolifically re-seed themselves every year, we have descendents of those same Bethlehem moonflowers in our current yard, eight years later! What a wonderful way to remember my first home and the first of many conversations with another gardener that inspired me to create something of my own.
Our current yard also has something from Rob’s single days: a stunning, low-growing red Japanese maple he planted when he renovated his childhood home – the one we lived in when we were first married. When we moved, we hired someone to dig it up and plant it here – quite a feat considering how large the tree had grown. Today, it spans about 7 feet in diameter and provides vibrant color at one end of our pool.
I grow California poppies to remind me of how they look lighting up hillsides along the central coast of California, my favorite place to visit. I grew toad lilies in the deep shade of my Bethlehem yard, and before I left, I dug them up. Those same plants bloom every fall in the shadiest spot in our yard here with exotic spotted purple flowers I admire right by our outdoor shower. Even the arched trellis that lends support to runner bean vines in my vegetable garden was once the chuppah Rob and I were married beneath. We have a sculpture, a wedding gift, made by a talented friend that stands tall among the perennials and grasses at the end of our pool.
Memories don’t need to be frozen in time. What I love about the memories evoked every day in my garden is that they grow and change, just as life does. I can interact with and care for them. They provide a constant in this life of uncertainty and constant change. No matter what’s going on in the world or in my life, every June, I can count on having hundreds of new moonflower seedlings, new life somehow connected to who I used to be.
What memories do you keep in your garden?