The following scene from Coming Up for Air inspired Patti Callahan Henry's WILDFLOWERS app.
Mother’s garden was a flurry of color and wild splendor. As a child, I’d thought it was the
purest expression of beauty. Even I understood Mother’s love for flowers, for their beauty, for their fragrance and extravagant fragility. I also understood her frustration with their unpredictability and wildness—a flower’s ability to become what she didn’t expect or intend. When she planted a pink Lady Banksia and a red bloom emerged, she blamed the soil or the grower or the humidity.
Limestone rocks, flat and raw-edged, lined the paths between the flower beds. Moss grew in
between the stepping-stones: sphagnum— even moss has a “real” name. Mother believed all living things had an ordinary name and then a cultured name.
Ellie,she’d once told me. Yes, we call you Ellie, but your name is Lillian. Never forget that. We might call you by your ordinary name, but your real name is innocence and beauty. And this—no matter what you are called—this is who you are—Lillian.
There was one day—a day of very young and unspecified age in my memory—when the weather was frigid and clear. I’d walked with Mother as she gently placed blankets and fleece over the rosebushes to protect them from the frost that would come that night. She mumbled their botanical names while covering the bushes as if she were tucking precious children into bed, murmuring bedtime prayers. I was jealous in the way a child can be when the world isn’t centered.
I shivered as I followed Mother. She didn’t notice me or my coldness, only the flowers. Oh, how she adored them and called them by their full and real names. I ran off—I don’t remember where I thought I was going, but I know what I sought: warmth, compassion, and someone who spoke my name “that” way.
I’d ended up at Sadie’s house with her mom, Birdie, bundling me in blankets. “Child, what is wrong with you?”
“I want to be beautiful like those flowers. Not ordinary.” What I’d really meant was that I wanted Mother to treat me the way she treated those flowers.
“Nothing living is ordinary,” Birdie said while rubbing my back. “There is no ordinary beauty.”
I nodded at her. “Oh, yes, there is.” I wiggled closer to Birdie’s warm body. “I am.”
“No, precious child, you are no ordinary beauty. You are extraordinary.”
Birdie had then called my parents. Mother and Daddy took me home and sat me in front of the fireplace with hot chocolate warm against my lips. I heard their voices as all children do when parents believe they can’t be heard. I deciphered their words in jigsaw puzzle pieces that I put together as I pleased.
“Weren’t you watching her?” My dad’s voice.
“Of course I was. She was right behind me, and then she was gone.” Mother was crying.
“Oh, Red, she is such a wildflower.”
Months later, the frost passed and the warm earth opened, allowing flowers and grass to pass through the once frozen soil. When Mother went to the nursery to buy more bulbs, I snuck a packet of wildflower seeds into the pocket of my red sundress. I figured I would be forgiven for stealing if I was doing it for a good purpose—to make Mother happy. This packet was a secret surprise for her, one that would make her smile and laugh and look me in the eyes and say my name with warm sweetness. Surely, oh, surely, she loved wildflowers.
In the middle of a moonless night, I snuck out and scattered the seeds throughout her cultured garden. Then I waited with the expectant breath-holding pleasure of any child waiting for a birthday party or a trip to Disney World. I lay in bed at night and envisioned the seeds below the deep soil, opening and thrusting upward with green stalks and wild colors like fireworks bursting into the sky.
I was coloring in my Brady Bunch coloring book at the kitchen counter when I saw her: Mother weeding the garden. Her straw hat covered her platinum hair, and the strings dangled below her chin, flowing in the wind. Her pink-flowered gardening gloves were yanking green stems from the ground and tossing them into a wicker basket she carried in the crook of her elbow.
I dropped the crayons to the floor and ran, slipping and running out the back door. “Stop!” I screamed.
Mother looked up from the ground. “Ellie, what is it?”
Tears were warm on my face and in my mouth—I tasted them. Mother dropped her basket and the new green shoots and brown crumbling roots landed on the ground.
“The flowers. Stop,” I whispered.
“I’m picking weeds, darling. What is wrong with you?”
“Those aren’t weeds. They are me. They are wildflowers. Me.” I took a long breath in. “My wildflowers.” I pulled the crumpled packet from the pocket of my culottes and held it out to Mother. “These.”
Mother looked at the packet. “Oh no, Ellie. You planted these?” I nodded.
“These are just ordinary wildflowers.”
“There is no ordinary. All flowers are extraordinary.” I tripped over the words I didn’t fully understand, repeating what Birdie had told me.
“I don’t understand.”
I dug small holes with my fingers, trying to shove the disconnected roots into the ground.
“But you love wildflowers. . . .”
“Not in my garden, Ellie. Not here.”
I froze, the heat and wetness of the day felt only as a cold ice settling over my body. I ran inside and up to my room. Mother found me under the bed. She sprawled down next to me. “Ellie, what is wrong with you?”
“I thought you wanted wildflowers. I was surprising you.”
She held out her hand where dirt sat under her fingernails, the dirt from my flowers. I took that hand and crawled out. We sat on the edge of my white chenille bedspread.
“You wanted to surprise me? That is so sweet and wonderful. Thank you so much,” Mother said in a singsong voice.
“But you don’t love them.”
“I just didn’t know. That’s all. I just didn’t know. I thought weeds were taking over my garden. You see, wildflowers aren’t a specific kind of flower. They are a mix that grow wild. . . .” Mother paused and then pointed out the window. “That garden is for botanical and cultured flowers.”
“Oh,” I said.
“There are thousands of wildflowers, and they grow where and when they want. But that garden is a botanical garden—one where I document and cultivate specific plants for ornamental purposes.”
She laughed. “Let me try new words. It is a garden where I grow very specific flowers for their prettiness and cultured pedigree. Okay? So no wildflowers in my botanical garden. And you see, wildflowers usually aren’t planted on purpose.”
“Thanks for trying to do something sweet, Ellie. Would you like to plant a wildflower garden on the other side of the yard?”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” I said.
She kissed me on the forehead. “You okay?”
She left me alone in my room. I stood and walked to the window overlooking her cultured and botanical garden.
Her garden: Cultivated for ornamental purposes. Me: Not planted on purpose.
I’d told that story only once, and it was to Hutch.