shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.

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10 comments

  1. What a beautiful post Joanna and pictures of a garden full of memories and bursting with life. As you know I am also a travelling companion for my mother in law on the road of ageing and having to give things up. Like you they teach us much and I am touched to learn that it is the strength you see in your mother coming through in many ways stronger than the loss that comes with ageing. Thank you for sharing these lovely thoughts, memories and photographs. Your lovely description of the garden was so profound I’m sure I could smell the flowers!

  2. Such a wonderful post. Reminds me of my own mother and how she encouraged me to cultivate roses. My garden is full of them, but not her. She left us some years ago. What an honor it is for you to sit and enjoy simple moments with your mum. I know each one is cherished… Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Lovely to meet you Teresa. I’m sorry about your mom. I also come from a long line of gardeners and it inspires me to think of their legacy – a succession of beautiful gardens planted by generation after generation.

  3. Joanna – just catching up. This is so beautifully written, a real accomplishment to weave together in such a sensitive way the record of your observations, thoughts and love. I too have been thinking a lot about ageing, and was very interested to see the recent programmes on the BBC. We need to talk more about it, I feel, to both appreciate our own elders, how best to support them, and how to prepare for our own ageing. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Colleen – I so agree about the need to talk about ageing, and for all the reasons you give. I think there is a generalised fear of the whole subject that might just go away or at least diminish considerably if we just faced up to it and, even, listened to what the elderly themselves have to say.

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