I Never Wanted To Become Like My Mother — But I Did Anyway

Photo: Oneinchpunch, pixelshot, Sumners Graphics, Lisa Fotios
Woman gardening like her mother once did

My mom used to take pictures of her garden. To me, they were just photos of plants. Her albums hold beloved memories of her trees, flowers, and, occasionally, resident squirrels and birds. 

I always wondered why she did this. It’s not as if her little slice of landscape would try to sneak away when she wasn’t looking. The plants would come into their season, bloom, ask politely for water, and then die back in the Pennsylvania winter.

I remember one photo in particular. At first glance, the picture appears to be of her neighbor’s yellow siding and downspout. But no, these things are the background. In front of the siding is a silver-painted chain-link fence. My dad had spray-painted it to hide the rust.

But that’s not what the photo is about, either.

In front of the fence is a mishmash of honeysuckle, irises, and black-eyed Susans. Growing to the side is coreopsis, leading into bleeding hearts and lilies of the valley. My mother’s pride and joy.

RELATED: 12 Health Benefits Of Growing Plants In And Around Your Home

There is no end and no beginning.

To the untrained eye, it is a bonafide miniature jungle. My dad got in trouble once for saying her garden looked like the “j” word. As is the way of nature, the plants didn’t bloom simultaneously, so the photo looks like a few flower buds lost in a sea of green stems and leaves. Mom didn’t believe in allowing space for her flowers to grow.

Over the years, the plants multiplied into a jumble of perennials, with annuals squeezed along the edges. No one detected the weeds until they were at least three feet high. Weeds, being weeds, knew how to prosper amidst the chaos of my mother’s garden.

Mom also photographed the flowers she’d cut from her garden. Her arrangement skills were rudimentary, and she snipped the stems the same length, jamming them into her latest garage sale vase. No flower was safe from her clippers.

Bouquet of flowers

Photo by author

Monstrous-sized purple rhododendrons from the overgrown bushes along the side of the house would be arranged in a giant vase on the dining room table, the dining room being the only room that could handle such extravagance. The indigo lilacs were my favorite because the weight of their fragrance would crash down on me like an ocean wave.

My mom took the pictures with her Canon SureShot, developed them, and placed the 3" x 5" glossies with tenderness into albums. They rest in my basement in brittle Sterilite bins thirty years later. I’ve moved them to three different houses.

RELATED: Moms, If You’re Trying To Be A Perfect Parent, You Need To Read This

The photos were so important to my mom.

Throwing them out felt wrong. My mom was a child of war, and trashing her stuff was verboten. She and my dad were borderline hoarders. As their only child, I would be burdened with emptying out their belongings when the time came.

When I tried to clean out the house after my dad died, she’d panic, words no longer ready because of her dementia, struggle to get up from her recliner, and try to chase me to the trashcan.

Confusion and anger colored her face. I’d seen that look many times before. Before throwing anything else away, I’d ensure Mom was tucked away at her new home, a memory care facility.

The new owners were thrilled with her garden. They told me to tell her that they loved the unique variety of plants she’d nurtured. I couldn’t possibly share that sentiment with her because I’d sold her house without her knowing. My mom always talked about going home again one day, but that would never happen.

Her flowers belonged to someone else now.

My mom suffered from dementia for six years, far away from her plants and trees, before dying in 2020. Growing up, I never understood her passion, but I do now.

My cutting garden is a testament to her.

The photo above shows my prized dahlias. I took it in portrait mode on my iPhone. Portrait mode is a camera feature where the center focal point becomes 3D. Two D would not cut it for these babies. I wanted to squeeze every last drop of beauty out of my orange dahlias. After all, I had attended to them since I’d pressed the six-inch long tubers into wet spring soil.

I loved to gaze at the petals folded in a tight geometric sequence, abiding by nature’s Golden Ratio. Dahlia blooms, despite their mathematical genius, don’t smell. I accented them with tall garden herbs like rosemary, parsley, and Cuban oregano. While the herbs may lack in looks, their smell reminds me of the robustness of my garden.

My flower arrangement skills are basic. I took a class in artificial flower arranging decades ago. I remembered one or two theories, none of which entered this vase.

RELATED: 3 Ways To Cope When You Realize You’ve Married Someone Who’s Just Like Your Parents

Their beauty and perfection lasted over a week.

I didn’t want them to, but the orange blooms faded a little bit daily. I grieved their impending absence even while they sat in the vase.

What happened to the old me? The person who used to be too busy to immortalize garden flowers. The woman who wouldn’t dream of knocking on her neighbor’s door to ask if she could cut a few blue hydrangeas, promising only to pluck from the back of the bush. The middle-aged grandmother who had no business climbing a hill in the woods, who steadied herself on branches to stay upright, scooping up wild daffodils.

I saw her familiar face when I looked in the mirror.

I never admitted to looking like my mother when I was young. I never wanted to look like her. Her face rarely conveyed warmth or love. I always thought I had more of my dad’s features, like his widow’s peak, full cheeks, and blue eyes.

On occasion, my kids would tell me that I looked like Oma. Yes, she who toiled in urban plant jungles. I saw it, too, but only recently since my face lost its suppleness.

It was bound to happen.

Once I’m gone, my kids will inherit my photo gallery, replete with 10,000 photos in the cloud. No child of mine will have to pack them into plastic bins. No one will call my pictures boring, either.

Why, you ask? They probably will not bother looking at or downloading my saved photos. Those images only held meaning for me.

I routinely go through closets and the basement to cull my belongings. I never want my kids to face the overwhelming task of emptying 70 years of junk. They can throw away everything — I don’t care.

Like my withered flowers, I will become a part of the cosmos. There’s only one thing I hope they will remember — how much I loved them.

RELATED: 13 Things That Inevitably Happen When You're Raised By A Strong Mom

Ilona Goanos is a writer and yoga instructor from the Jersey Shore. Retired from her career, she has embraced creativity in her third act, including ghostwriting, guest blogging, writing on Medium, and her own weekly Substack newsletter.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.