Lilies of the Valley

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

lilies of the valleyMy mother planted lilies of the valley along her garden’s edge. It was one of her rare mundanities, and the memory has remained with me. One early autumn day, wearing orange clamdiggers, matching gloves, and shoulder-banging earrings, she carried a bag of bulbs, a spade, and a small braided rug to the garden.

She rolled out the rug to kneel on, to protect her knees from the damp earth. She had shattered them both in an accident years before I was born. A truck, oblivious to the winter’s effect on the winding country road, skated around a bend and over the top of my parents' little car. I’ve imagined her lying there, bright red blood sketching her outline in the sterile snow, a mouthful of shattered windshield burrowing into her gullet like seventeen-year cicadas into the ground, to emerge in another lifetime.

Mother was not expected to live. Even Maud, the mighty Southern Baptist mother-in-law, abandoned her latest disownment to declare a deathbed reconciliation. But, as was Mother’s wont, she astounded the family yet again. With a turban around her shaved head and extravagant rings dangling all from one ear, she left the naysayers slack-jawed at the hospital as she traipsed off with a limp to other eyebrow-raising pursuits.

Indeed, planting bulbs with me was one of the few of my mother’s temperate moments. She knelt on the rug her mother had braided with remnants from a prodigious sewing basket: scraps of worsted wool from Grandmother’s childhood skirts, bits of camel’s hair coat handed down from the generation before, remains of the blankets long-gone babes had suckled when their mothers were not at hand. Resting on her legacy, Mother dug down into the rich, moist soil to place the bulbs, to bring definition to her garden path. While she sowed, she taught me the lilies of the valley song in her voice that had lost its music to the ravages of swallowed glass.

White coral bells upon a slender stalk
Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk
Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring
That will happen only when the fairies sing

In the spring, she said, we would see the graceful stalks and ribbed leaves draw the garden’s border, and the blossoms would soon follow. I watched and watched where the bulbs had disappeared and cared only to hear the bells ring and to catch a fairy in the house I’d made of twigs and berries. But autumn prevailed, spring would not come, and I was distracted from my vigil by the joys of lining up pilfered apples, roadside to roadside, and watching cars press them into apple butter as we, my siblings and I, rolled in hilarious fits behind the hedge, delighted with our miscreant deeds. I suppose my mother watched us from the window, pleased with our simple pleasures and wishing they could stay that way. She certainly knew better, though—she was anything but simple.

My mother did not bake cupcakes. No, she filled our little brown bags with cream cheese and caviar sandwiches, a dash of lemon juice and grated onion to temper the salt. We desperately tried to trade them for peanut butter and jelly or baloney or even Velveeta, but to no avail.

She did make her own green tomato relish for the bridge club—the best in town, so they said—and she decorated the tally cards with whimsical caricatures of unnamed women. Little did the bridge ladies know that they served as models for the cards that set them all atwitter, the buxom gals with the rhinestone beauty marks, the preening peacocks with knobby knees, the skinny schoolmarms with opossum snouts. Then Mother delighted in telling the ladies, as they politely nibbled her cucumber and watercress sandwiches and savored her relish, that the tomatoes grew wild over our septic tank.

On the odd occasion, she did try to comport herself within the bounds of convention. She tried in her way. The day my mother stood behind the elementary school lunch counter, lovingly handing out milk cartons to my peers, she wore her outrageous hoop earrings—two on one ear—and her flowing kaftan reached well below the accepted hemline of the day. The children wanted to know if that Gypsy was my mother. I fled the milk line to hide in the girl’s lav until lunch was over. Then I begged her to send me to private school, where I could camouflage our eccentricities with an indistinguishable uniform of grey and navy blue. But she laughed, assuming my plea could only be a joke.

Some years later, my mother sat on the floor of my attic room amid my circle of friends. They liked to come to my house, they said, because my mother was groovy. She let me sleep on a mattress on the floor, with Indian beads and paisley fabrics decorating the slanted surfaces of the ceiling and incense poking out of the fieldstone chimney’s chinks—incense she’d selected because its scent made her think of me, she said. That night, the savory smoke filling our adolescent heads with unspoken notions, Mother asked if we got high, allowing as how she might like to try it. Then my friends knew that she was truly cool, and I knew there was nothing worse than being less cool than one’s mother. My only recourse was to crawl behind the decorations of my groovy room and await a humiliated teenager’s death.

But I survived and was on the verge of independence, when Mother told me she ate in lieu of sex. I had come of age, and I understood, although it saddened me, that she and Father had sex, and that they didn’t. A little loss of weight was a cheery sign they were once again intimate, and it made me squirm. Midnight raids on the fridge meant the worst for them, and indulged my selfish complacency.

That fridge was the source of so much consolation.

When I chose to no longer be pregnant, my mother reached into the fridge and fed me comfort, all my favorite things—chocolate icebox cake, spoonbread, and, yes, caviar and cream cheese. I laid my head on her chest, she stroked my brow, and she asked me. So I told her of the vacuum, slurping from my womb like the dregs of a strawberry soda. She wept with me and brought more tasty morsels to sooth our sadness.

I wondered where my mother ended and I began.

Always afraid of becoming her, still, I wished for her social grace and her facile humor, her gift for making the most awkward of guests feel honored at her table or giving the dyspeptically staid a case of the vapors with a line as smart as it was unseemly or bringing back to earth the loftiest of egos—all with the eloquence and wit of a finely-crafted quip. Well into her eighties, Mother could still have been a contender at Dorothy Parker’s table.

Eventually, I did replicate a daughter of my own, and as she grew I winced at the realization of how my mother must have ached through the years I had thought I hated her. I’d been so certain she didn’t—couldn’t—understand, and I had punished her for that. Yet, when I first gazed down at my daughter, suckling my breast, I was finally able to define that warm, wonderfully safe feeling that thoughts of my mother still bear with them today. She had nursed me as well. Ever after, I could rest my head on her bosom and know indeed that all would be right.

And it was. Until the day my mother died.

And I, I waded along the shore of sorrow, waves lapping at my legs, in and out, in and out. I looked to the fridge for solace, searching for sweetness to surround the pain, opening and closing the door fruitlessly. I resorted to cinnamon toast, sprinkling more at the edges, as she did, to make the crusts easier to bear. I dreamt of her, burying my face in her pillow-chest. And I re-braided the unraveling ends of my mother’s mother’s rug with the clothes of my childhood. Then I took my daughter to the garden. We knelt on the small and well-worn rug, and we planted lilies of the valley while we sang.


Patricia Bacon Gressitt, December 30, 1925 to June 11, 2013