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Gardening Daze

Paris Dreams
Retrieving memories, in the greenhouse

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My mother was not the homemaker type. She finished boarding school, then left her Connecticut home to sing and dance on Broadway. There she met a well-known songwriter of the time, Vernon Duke, who asked her to come to Paris in 1944 to live and sing his songs. The letters she saved attest to the stormy nature of the relationship. When she opted for a quieter, perhaps more mundane life with my father (a Dartmouth, Navy man), Vernon Duke wrote from Paris in September 1947:

"I still believe that you wasted a splendid opportunity to make a barrel of money, and a name for yourself besides, with that curiously haunting voice of yours. I am no fool, and I know that with that black hair and a well-cut white dress your fascinating voice would have been a welcome novelty in a smart night club. That of course requires handling; and no one wants to handle you."

Rather than accept a post teaching English at Kent School, my father chose a sales position with a plastics company on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. He says he felt my mother would not have taken to the quiet life of a school teacher's wife in a sleepy New England town. For 15 years my mother raised five children, always making time to act in productions with the Little Theater of Puerto Rico and sing in the San Juan chorale. She never spoke at length about her life in New York City, but as a child I remember sensing her wistful curiosity about a different life in Paris.

Last week I gathered the emotional fortitude I knew I needed to visit my father's house in town and go through some last boxes of my mother's possessions. After she died two years ago, I went through the house collecting her shoes, clothes and coats. Most of these went to the thrift store, a fitting return to the kind of store from which most had come. She always prided herself on finding classy clothes for bargain prices. Still, I cried as I drove up to the thift store drop-off point, opened the trunk and handed her things to strangers.

Most of the things still left were kitchen items -- bowls, pans, utensils -- things my father has no use for in his simply equipped kitchen. For a woman who never took home economics and grew up surrounded by cooks and servants, my mother collected an amazing array of cooking implements. The job I set for myself was to sift through them and make yet another pile for the thrift store. With resolve I told myself, "You can do this now, or do it in a few more years when your father goes. Lighten your load later by doing it now."

The cold February air in the garage impelled me to move quickly, but within minutes I removed my sweater, feeling heated by the turmoil of memories. The box of things I wanted to keep grew fuller than the one filled with throwaways. I had to keep the wooden bowl Mum used to chop onions. I could see her standing at the kitchen counter, face down, chopping chunks of onions into tiny pieces for meatloaf. The pan for baking banana bread, I had to keep that too.

As far back as I can remember, banana bread was her dependably foolproof culinary triumph. From the days we'd pick bananas from our backyard trees in Puerto Rico, to the East Coast market selections she'd let rot to sweetness on the kitchen counter, she could always whip up a batch of banana bread at a moment's notice, and it always tasted moist, delicious, perfect.

I was home visiting in Connecticut in 1989, and Mum forgot to add the sugar to the banana bread recipe. She had lately started using the recipe again, after years of knowing it by heart, and even so she forgot the sugar. She chastised herself, "Oh, Laurie, I'm such an idiot. How could I have forgotten the sugar? What is wrong with my brain?"

I passed it off as an occasional lapse of attention or absent-mindedness, not an unusual occurrence given my mother's sometimes theatrical behavior and erratic moods. A year later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

I stood in the garage looking at the boxes of kitchen items. I didn't really need more kitchen stuff but my mother had disappeared slowly, painfully and inexorably from my life and I was tired of losing her and letting her go. Then inspiration struck: I realized that all these tools, bowls and pans would be so useful in the potting room of my greenhouse. The large wooden bowl would be perfect for mixing small batches of soil, the wooden spoons perfect for stirring, the baking trays ideal for holding water for new transplants. Mum and I would make banana bread mud pies together.

Yesterday while unpacking and organizing my new garden equipment in the greenhouse, I put on my mother's apron. Staring across the snowy mountain meadow, wrapping the apron straps around my hips, I looked down to see bread batter across the front where the material was worn from her belly leaning against the kitchen counter. I squeezed the material between my hands, closed my eyes and brought it up to my face, hoping to smell a trace of her scent.

My mother appeared, as if summoned by the alchemy of the old bread batter and the scents of soils, soft worn fabric, and flowers. Curious, her eyes bright with playful mischief, her black hair framing her high cheekbones, her soft olive skin smelling of earth, she looked around smiling at the sight of our garden kitchen and all her utensils being used to cook up a batch of flowers.

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