She could grow anything from seed.
She could take tiny seeds with her fingertips, place them into the soil, and coax them to grow. She would carefully water the soil and whisper, "You're going to love the sunshine. You're going to feel the rain. And you are really going to adore the rainbow!"
I watched this mysterious woman and marveled at the love she gave to each tiny seed. It was as though the love that she had longed for, and never experienced, poured out of her heart, into the seed and soil. As if in a strange intimacy, she pulled grace and beauty from the depths, and the little plants would burst forth, reaching for light and air.
There was some sort of hushed beauty within her. A secret longing that no one had ever seen nor touched.
It was as if she were too shy or too scared to awaken, perhaps knowing that once set free, she would become out of control. I caught a glimpse of that passion when her anger became unleashed, and it could be dangerous to be the one within her grasp. Yet she was always gentle with growing things.
She was a mystery to me-this repressed, passionate, secret woman, who gave up on life early within my childhood.
She seldom bought a living plant. She combed garden catalogs looking for seeds. She mixed her own soil and she started those seeds in any container available. To my mother, anything that had a bottom and an open top was a container.
She started seeding in empty egg cartons, milk cartons, and even eggshells. She especially loved to start tomatoes in the eggshells of geese. She'd make a tiny drainage hole with a needle, start the seed in her homemade soil, and when it came time to transplant into the garden, she would gently crush the shell, right before she placed the plant into it's permanent home.
"Eggshells sweeten the soil," she would say.
Where she found the African Violet seeds, I'll never know. I watched her mix just the right amount of soil ingredients, placing the invisible seed at just the right depth. Then she watered with care and watched it grow.
It seemed to me that, overnight, the tiny plants would appear, strong and affirming, to lighten up her life. I loved to watch my mother's face, as those first tiny seedlings raised their heads to smile at her.
I suppose that my mother felt safest with her plants. Plants never told her she was worthless. Plants asked for little, and they gave back so much. Plants never came home drunk, like my father did. And they were never disobedient, as I was.
My mother would often tell me her secrets for making things grow. I can still hear her voice as she shared her magical recipe for compost or discussed the benefits of one manure over another.
I never told her just how beautiful she was at those moments, with her face alight with understanding and knowledge.
My mother was a botanist, without a degree. She was a horticulturist, without a following. She cared for growing things with great tenderness, and in spite of the sorrow in her life, I still remember my mother's smile, as some new thing sprang forth before her eyes.
I remember her warm, throaty laugh, when she discovered that first robin's nest in spring. I'd stand, spellbound with her, as she counted the eggs that tried so inadequately to imitate the blue in my mother's eyes.
She told me stories filled with longing and pathos. I would laugh and cry with her as she spun the threads of her lost dreams, never daring to hope for a future. She was brilliant, and she never knew it.
She was a beauty overcome by regret and broken promises. She dreamed impossible dreams that were never uttered, and even less fulfilled.
Every once in a while, that beautiful, passionate woman would peek out through my mother's volatile journey through life-usually when she was coaxing plants to come out of the dark and encouraging them to reach for the light.