My mother, a witty reductionist and a first-generation Chinese American, says that Chinese folks plant vegetables while white folks plant flowers.
She says it with pride in being practical people. Some vegetables, she says, also produce flowers for a moment before they become something more useful. She doesn’t consider beauty valuable in its own right.
But Zora’s grandmother Ellie Mae – a mother by all means, who cared for Zora when Zora’s own mother was no longer able – she planted flowers. Even when she became sick, she often stayed out in the sun pruning, redirecting, gently nudging, giving shape, making space, granting permission for whatever spirit moves tender things toward the sun.
Since October, we’d been living with Ellie Mae half the time – half of each week. After years of living with uterine and then colon cancer, she decided to cease treatment – no small task for a woman who knew that she wasn’t done living.
Since Ellie Mae had decided to to live the remainder of her days at home with no further medical interventions, we knew that she would soon near the end of her life. Zora is her favorite grandchild – more beloved perhaps than her own children are to her.
Ellie Mae was brought up in rural Maine – in a small fishing village white as seafoam. There, she was steeped in a conservative, evangelical sort of Christianity – the same kind in which Zora was brought up. And her faith was sharpened through tragedy and loss.
“Who made the world?”
As an adult, she had to stand her ground against familial and societal expectations to tend her career as a real estate agent. With her newfound freedom came pierced ears, a pixie cut, and a Dodge Charger. She cheered loudest at Zora’s basketball games. She traveled the world.
She equipped Zora with all she needed to be the strong woman and advocate she is today. Zora inherited her grandmother’s strength, resilience, intelligence, faith, and her open mind and heart.
I always knew Ellie Mae to be a gardener. Her home sits on a hill that faces the rocky coast, and between boulders and against the woods, she planted a bewildering array of flowers that often brought passers-by to stop in awe.
The warm months in mid-coast Maine are few. Planting flowers is a double-dare of joy amid what is otherwise winter without end. Planting flowers is like saying to visitors, “Thank you for your company.” A woman does not live on cherry tomatoes alone.
“What else should I have done?”
When Zora and I announced that we were engaged, Ellie Mae wanted to see a magazine of gay weddings so she could get a sense for what our wedding might look like. She asked frequently whether and when we would have children. And when we resolved to buy our first home, she opined to know it all – every detail of every house that could have been the one. When she gave The One her blessing, we knew we’d made the right choice.
Last Christmas, she asked this year for a photo of us both. She said there weren’t any photos of me in the home. So, we printed this one from our wedding to place by her bedside.
And we got her a wrap-around maternity pillow to give her comfort while she spent long hours in bed. We called it her throne, and until her final days, she loved it. “When I’m gone, you two should take it back,” she said to me one day, “so that when you’re pregnant, you can use it too.”
“Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.”
I’d wanted Ellie Mae to see our first home. She had plenty of opinions and good ideas. She would’ve enjoyed the porch, the way the sun comes in, the gardens we would plant.
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
God discipled both of us – Zora and me – through Ellie Mae, who modeled the spirit of What-If, who took in a teenage girl that needed a home, who consistently interrogated whether she had more love to give, more to understand, more to love, more and more.
In her last weeks, we sometimes talked about God. I wish we’d talked more about the things that mattered most to her, but Zora said that the silence sufficed. One night, she said with a smile, “God must be like a mother – mothers know everything.”
God the gardener, God the mother, God the taker-in of teenage girls, God the refuge, God the interrogator – some of us, if we’re lucky, I guess, or if we try our best – get to bear God’s image in a multitude of layers, like a peony.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do…”
And so I think when spring comes and we open the earth of our new home – the one that I wish Ellie Mae were here to see – beside the cucumbers and the peppers and the water spinach, we will also plant flowers.
While they are still with us, and us with them – wild and precious – we will be thankful for their company.
Quotes/headers from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”
Painting by Édouard Vuillard