When I think back to childhood places, it’s easy to forget flowers in the midst of food and people, but they were there; silent, diverse, and as integral to the landscape of my memories as the people who tended them.
Growing up, my neighbor had a lilac bush in her front yard. Every spring, the scrawny plant would come alive with sticky sweet lilac blossoms, spilling purple onto her front yard. When the wind blew just the right way, that fresh, clean-linen smell of blooming flowers tumbled onto our front porch and made my mother sneeze. Sometimes we would pull the little flowers from the bush and taste the nectar. It was the first time I’d ever tasted a flower.
After a recent trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I realized how closely connected flowers were to memories of the many women in my life.
My mother was always growing something, whether it was the rhododendron plant that grew next to our driveway, or a collection of blue and purple hyacinth plants in the backyard. She used to keep hanging plants on our porch, and one of my most vivid memories of my mother is how she used to drag the hose to all her different plants in the early evening, carefully explaining that the best time to water plants is at night. The hose trailed behind her like a docile snake.
At Brooklyn Botanic, faded memories resurfaced with every flowering plant and labeled marker.
“See the peonies?” I pointed out the large pink flower heads to my husband. “My grandmother had those in her yard.” She used to brush away the ants before bringing them inside. They were the pale pink kind, and even among the many shades of pink, fuschia, and white peonies at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the pale pink is still my favorite. I carried them in my wedding bouquet in her honor.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is well known for its many varieties of cherry blossom trees that bloom over a five week period every spring. As we meandered through the Cherry Walk section of the park under a dusting of pink petals, I remembered the cherry blossom tree we had in our backyard as kids. Every spring we’d climb the tree and shake the branches until the petals fell like pink snow. It was a wonderful place to hide. Despite the petition I enlisted our neighbors to sign (many of whom refused), my father cut it down to put a pool in our backyard. We were the only house on the block with a pool, the envy of every sweating kid on a bike, but I missed that tree sorely.
And under Magnolia Plaza, I was reminded of the many women I worked with at the Queens County Farm, my first “real” job, who used to gather every morning in front of the Magnolia tree and talk. It was under the Magnolia tree that I learned the importance of wearing daily SPF face moisturizer, the logistics of honey bee pollination, and the many intricate ways a woman’s body changes as it ages (in great detail).
As my husband took off across a grassy patch towards a bushy plant with hanging yellow flowers, I realized I wasn’t the only one with flower memories. He read the name of the plant carefully, committing it to memory, explaining that his mother had one in the front yard when he was growing up. “Bishop’s Hat,” he repeated and nodded. When I walked away and realized he wasn’t behind me, I turned to see him smelling the delicate yellow flowers, alone with a memory from many years before.