My mother loved gardenias. We have a picture of her as a seventeen-year-old bride, standing beside her World War II soldier, holding a cascading bouquet of white mums and gardenias. To the end of her life, they remained her favorite flower.
Last week, I went out on my back porch to water all of the potted plants, and when I ended up with leftover water in the can, I walked to the end of the porch and poured it into the wildly overgrown gardenia in the yard. Leaning forward, I examined the early spring state of the plant: healthy and covered with leaf buds. No flower buds yet. Then suddenly, I found that I was watering the shrub with my tears.
When my father died in 2004, two mourners who knew her well gave my mother potted gardenias at his funeral. She planted one in her yard, and she gave the other to me. This is the plant at the end of my porch. It sits in front of the dryer vent, soaking up the heat, never invaded by pruning shears, thanks to the ignorance of its owners. By now, it is well over my head, and it blesses us with abundant blooms twice a year. The fragrance seeps through the walls and windows into the house. Intoxicating.
Last year, at the very end of May, we went to South Carolina to see my mother in the hospital. She was about to have surgery to remove her pacemaker, since it may have been causing a serious infection. Just before we got in the car, I cut off a double handful of the last spring blooms and buds from my father’s gardenia plant to cheer her. When we arrived, the nurse was entering the room as I asked whether Mom could have flowers, and her official answer was, “No.” But when she saw the homely nature of the bouquet, she relented. “Oh. Alright.” So we stuck our offering into a plastic hospital pitcher, and the room filled with their aroma. I asked Mom if it was too much in the small space, and she said, “Oh, no. I love gardenias.”
We had no idea that night that a few days later, Mom would leave us to go back to her beloved groom, the fragrance of his gardenias in her hair.