The begonias on my porch have burst forth in bloom again. Each spring, I trot off to Soil Service and return with a flat of the carefree plants. I dig my hands in my huge bag of soil and gently set each small begonia in a new bed of dirt, in a clean pot. I fill my old plastic watering can and soak their roots. They boldly raise their leaves towards the sun, unfurling their colorful adornment, until late July, when the Missouri heat scalds their greenery and shrivels the delicate petals. But this year, only my shy little gardenia bush withered; the potted plants grew tall, and full, and sent out blossom after blossom. I sit looking at them, and thinking of the most recent gardener in my life, my mother-in-law, Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, who slipped away from us this week.
She spent the last six months of her life in comfort at a facility aptly called The Sweet Life. Though at first, she wanted only to go home, nonetheless she felt the room to be comfortable and pretty. She would pat the table which stood under the window, and gesture to the matching chairs and the wide dresser. Jay bought these things for me, she told me, time and again, as though perhaps I might have forgotten. And he bought that lamp, too, she would add, and smile at me. The smile told me, I am loved, you know; Jabez MacLaughlin loves me. She didn't need to say the words. The sweep of her hand, encompassing the tangible proof of his adoration, said them for her.
I tried to visit her as often as I could. The "speech therapist" -- a Sweet Life code word for the folks who prompted her to strain her failing memory -- urged us to keep her mind stimulated. I tried bringing her books in the genre we both enjoyed, but she could not focus. Then, one clear blue Saturday, I went to Suburban Lawn and Garden, and found a willing clerk. I want to put together a portable gardening kit, I told him. I want to garden with my mother-in-law, but we only have a four-foot table on which to work, and one window sill's worth of space. The man smiled, and pulled a cart over. He told me to push, and walk with him. He found a window box, some sturdy hand tools, a good-sized bag of soil, and a flat of begonias. I added gloves, and a small, long-spouted watering can, and away I went.
I loaded it all on the same dolly that I use to take my trial bag into the courthouse, a small silver carrier which unfolds to the perfect size for one banker's box. I wheeled it into the Sweet Life and past the wide-eyed, covetous glances of the other residents. I made my way to Joanna's room, where she sat in a chair, gazing out her window.
She turned her eyes towards me and the corners of her mouth curled upward. But the light in her eyes turned radiant when her glance fell on my burden. You've got begonias, she exclaimed, and extended her hand towards my little four-wheeler. I hauled the plants, and the window box, and soil, and the shiny new tools, to the dining room table that Jabez MacLaughlin had bought for his beautiful bride. I spread some newspaper down to protect the table's surface, remarking that the paper probably wasn't good for much else, so bad had its writing gotten. Joanna laughed, a small, gentle sound; but she did not join me in criticising anything, even the local rag.
I situated the supplies within Joanna's reach. She looked over the pile without speaking, as though assessing and planning. Then she picked up the canvas gloves and pulled them over her slender fingers. She turned her eyes towards me and gestured for me to put some rocks into the bottom of the container. I held open the bag of soil and she took a handful of good rich dirt, and covered the stones. She eased the plants from their plastic cups, aligning them in a row within the long rectangle, on top of the first layer of soil. To that point, she had been sitting; but she seemed impatient with my manner of doling out the dirt. She raised herself from the chair, and dug both of her hands deep into the bag, then changed her mind. She lifted the bag and dumped a generous mound of dirt, enough to surround the flowers. She patted the mound level, added more, then looked up at me. And at that precise moment, I took her picture: Joanna -- making a tiny but lovely garden, on the table that Jabez MacLaughlin got for her.
A few minutes later, her fatigue overcame her and she lowered herself into the chair. She let me fill the watering can and bring it to her. It took both of her arms to lift it, but she soaked the soil, then pressed it firmly down around the slender stalks. I hoisted the finished box to the window sill, situating it under the stained glass piece that Joanna's sister Patt gave her, which dangled from the window lock. I cleared away the debris, and repacked the gardening tools. She sat by the table, with a sweet, contented expression molding her delicate features. I like to garden, she remarked, her face glowing. We sat in silence for a while, surrounded by the flowers and, restored to their places on her table, the photographs of her daughter Virginia, her son Jim, her grandchildren, and her beloved Jabez. At that moment, we had no need for words.
I only knew Joanna for a little more than four years. Like all great ladies, though, she taught me much. She smiled whenever anyone came into the room. When she first saw you, she would invariably mention something pleasant -- some little thing about you that she remembered: a class you were taking, a new job you had, or something she remembered doing with you. She offered you something refreshing, to eat, or drink; and listened to your stories with an air of interest. She'd tuck those stories away, and trot them out the next time she saw you, to ask you how things were, and whether you had managed to succeed at something you mentioned intending to try. And you would go away thinking, what a nice lady, and for the rest of the day, you would wear the smile that she had given you. And that, I would say, is the mark of a wonderful person.
It stormed last night. The wild release has cleared the air. I hear my husband's tread upon the stairs, James, the son of Joanna and Jabez. It's a sound I love. He's just about to come around the corner; and I feel Joanna's smile, rising to my lips.
In Memory: Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, 08/17/30 - 10/08/13. Rest easy.