I grew up in Pennsylvania, where spring bulbs not only thrive, but multiply, exploding each spring in waves of brilliant color. For twenty years, I’ve lived in the South, where daffodils and tulips have to be coaxed into half-hearted bloom and even then, they’re only good for one season. Despite mixed results, I keep planting them, but not without an argument. I stand over the bed, a spade in my hand, while a little voice whispers, “Remember Atlanta? You’re wasting your time.” Then a louder voice argues, “Give them a chance. Maybe they’ll grow.”
That voice is my mother. When I was a child, her kitchen garden spanned half an acre, with six-by-eight plots for my sister and me. Mom grew root crops and beans, lettuce and tomatoes, sweet corn and English peas. Her seasonal border charmed passing motorists, beginning with daffodils, tulips, and iris, and giving way, through the summer, to daylilies, gladiolus, and dahlias.
Her gardening impulse spilled over to the weird and wonderful hybrids advertised in the Sunday supplements and the back of Woman’s Day. Every few weeks, the mailman would beep and Mom would hurry outside, returning with a ventilated cardboard box from Gurney Brothers or Burpee. Inside would be a tomato plant that promised a three-bushel yield, a vine guaranteed to cover a twenty-foot fence in a single season, or a shrub that dared to flower half-pink and half-blue. Each one arrived as a humble three-inch stem with two leaves, its immature roots enclosed in a plastic bag of potting mix and straw. Mom nurtured them all, rejoicing when they thrived and shrugging—unconvincingly—when they didn’t. She played the game with vigor and she won more often than she lost.
One October, after a long time away, I went home for a visit. The first thing I noticed was the dooryard garden, weed-choked and dry. There were no fading marigolds, no pungent chrysanthemums filling in until snow. My indefatigable mom, who hand-mowed a half acre into her sixties, was slowing down. Our relationship had had its bumps, but gardening always brought us together, so I changed into jeans, armed myself with Mom’s shovel, and prepared to attack the neglected bed.
Mom stood by, wringing her hands. “Be careful,” she said. “There might be some bulbs.”
Might be some bulbs? Each thrust of the shovel brought out a clump of five, or ten, or even twenty. There were hundreds of bulbs. There were more bulbs than soil, and pretty soon we were giggling. While I dug out the weeds and amended the soil with compost and bone meal, Mom separated the daffodils from the tulips and the crocus from the grape hyacinths. Many were shriveled; others were beginning to rot. I would have thrown them out and started over, but that wasn’t Mom’s way. We planted every one, the last of them by the light from the porch.
That winter was hard and by January, Mom had grown weary of the cold. “Spring’s coming,” I’d say, and she’d answer, “I know, and I’m waiting for tulips.” I had my doubts that those bulbs would bloom, but I didn’t let on, and it’s a good thing: Those old bulbs put on a show that truly amazed me. Mom was ecstatic and I learned my lesson.
Now when the dreary months get me down, I remind myself spring’s coming. And thanks to my mom, I’m waiting for tulips.