Perennials by Angela Belcher Epps

December 1, 2015 | By | 9 Replies More

I sit on the brick steps outside my mother’s front door beneath a blue sunny October sky. Flowers still bloom, random whiffs of cedar mulch drift on a breeze, and the aroma of cactus pears tempts some brave southerner to take a bite. I pray no one spots me as I settle in to write about the seven months since my mother passed away.

It has been a bizarre phase of my life; I could never have imagined how I would contend with the loss of my mother. I anticipated a descent into fear, unbearable sadness, perhaps lapses into depression. The reality, however, is that I have experienced long and deep stretches of tranquility as I spend time at her home on Highway 45 in Plymouth, North Carolina. This place has become a haven for me. My mother was a Downeast Carolina woman to the very marrow of her bones, and I feel her presence here. Even though she worked for 40 years in New York City—twenty of them as a railroad clerk in the subway system, her true essence always transcended the concrete and quick city pace. She did this in two ways: by slow cooking meals as she’d learned as a farm girl, and growing plants—both inside and out.

The keeping of plants just might be emblematic of our lineage. Mary, my great-grandmother, gardened with passionate hands. So passionately that one of her plants has been kept alive (a mere two miles from where I sit) for more than half a century beyond her death. And story has it that her daughter, Ruth (my grandmother), traipsed through the cemetery with her small children in tow to plant and tend to flowers at Mary’s grave. I’ve come to believe a gardener’s heart is fortified by the gathering, spreading and keeping of plants.

I spent most of my early years in Plymouth with my grandparents. Grandma Ruth’s garden was the envy of our Sand Hill community. Zinnias, four o’clocks, day lilies, gladioli, azalea bushes and black-eyed Susans burgeoned on the edge of the loamy road. Monstrous evergreens graced each end of our porch, and we avoided a dangerously wide cedar at the foot of the front door step. On Saturday mornings, my aunts and I swept and removed the sandy dust that wafted through the screen doors. We then cut flowers and made arrangements to rival any that might have been delivered to our door.

One Sunday morning, an infamous neighbor pushed his wife into my grandmother’s flowerbed. My folks hurried to help, of course, but reminders of the evil-doing—and the image of the woman sprawled among the flowers, lingered with the compression of several shrubs and the patch of pansies. At the back of our house, next to the pump, a sunless cedar bush struggled, split and browned each year—clearly distressed by its swampish element, but it never died.

In 1965, desegregation and civil rights became the hushed conversations around our wood-burning stove, on church grounds, during recess. Some of my friends left the colored Fourth Street School to integrate the elementary school on Third Street. As the chill of fall settled in, a cold fear took hold of the hearts in our town. In the midst of that tense and unsettled season, my grandmother died. Although stunned with grief, we were spared the decision of whether to switch schools sooner (by choice) rather than later (by mandate). I went to live in New York City permanently, in the heart of Brooklyn. No more dirt roads and water pumped from the ground; uptown was everywhere. Integration became a non-issue in my melting-pot classroom. And for the next several months, the civil rights movement happened on television instead of down the road and across the railroad tracks. Daily, I walked home with a key around my neck and passed cookie-cutter apartment buildings until I reached our stoop, which was miraculously efflorescent amidst cold brick surroundings.

My mother’s green thumb nurtured rosebushes tamed with twine to save pedestrians from thorny molestation. Hostas spread affluently, and their lanky flowers waved in the wind.  Lilac hydrangeas grew to the height of kindergartners, and each spring, children and adults alike could not resist breaking a stemmed blossom and tucking it somewhere—behind an ear, in a lapel, in the corner of a purse. From time to time, there was evidence of a nocturnal prowler who cut bouquets. One bold woman (dubbed Ms. Slim Green) managed to pilfer entire plants—leaving small, gaping holes. My mother never fretted, as there is no greater compliment to a gardener than the coveting of one’s flora.

Inside our apartment, a jade plant— sturdy and verdant, grew slowly, barely centimeters a year. Our kitchen window and any sill wide enough to accommodate a pot, held spider plants, several varieties of cacti, mother-in-laws tongues, and succulents. The snake plants settled unnoticed in the corners had originated with my grandmother. No one, myself included, paid Mom’s plants any mind. When she went on vacation, she doubted the reliability of the designated plant sitter, and whatever harm they suffered in her absence, she nursed away on her return. Mom did not speak fondly of her plants as if they were pets. Nor did she talk to them or make a show of any victories. They were simply there—an extension of her nature, her way of being in the world.

My mother retired in her mid-60s, returned to Plymouth and built a small house on land bought from a cousin. She immediately started to dig. No tiller or bobcats broke the earth. Season by season, with sturdy shoes and Ace Hardware tools, she tended beautiful, haphazardly-planted gardens on both sides of her front steps. No blueprints or landscaping plans. If it grew too large and dwarfed its neighbors, she moved it. Too fragile? She surrounded it with bricks and wire, or ventured into the patch of woods beside her house to hacksaw twigs and whittle staking posts.

That was about the time that my own latent horticultural instinct awakened. Suddenly I wanted a cutting from this, a root of that. And for the first time, my mother and I found common ground as grown women. When I moved from New York to Raleigh, Mom helped me start my own flower and vegetable gardens. We shopped for plants together, repotted side by side. And each visit—her to Raleigh and me to Plymouth, included a session of digging, clipping, and wrapping tender cuttings in wet paper to make the trip safely for transplanting.

In the chill of this past January, my mother took a down turn. Not enough for her to take to her bed, but enough for her to say, “I might be like that old saying: If I can January and February, I believe I can March on through.” But that was not to be. At the end of February, she passed away at home, just a foot or two away from her shelves of picture window plants. I spent the better part of two snowy weeks in her home before going back to Raleigh and my work. Numb and startled, I couldn’t fathom how the next seasons of the year would pan out.

I returned a few weeks later, nearing the end of March. I came alone—fearful of my return to an empty home place—the first time ever without a mother lingering by the stove or at the front door. When I turned into the driveway, my spirit soared. A patch of daffodils, budding azaleas, and mysterious shoots jutting up around the hedges were like greetings from my mother. Her presence persisted as new life, growth, beauty. And there began my seasons of healing. Joyfully, I weeded, watered, mulched and pruned—all through the spring and into the heat of the summer. I could sense my mother’s approval as I pulled up wild mint or carefully cut back the cactus.

I imagine many women fear the chasm that will come when their mothers have gone—wonder what will be and who they will be without the cord of continuity. I am eternally grateful for my mother’s plants and flowers because they remind me that we still live as they thrive, multiply and bloom. We till the earth to sweat out life’s frustrations. We plant whatever is at hand to quench our thirst for beauty. We pass idle hours pulling weeds. And we propagate and cultivate— bringing the past into our present. We, the perennial keepers of gardens.

Salt in the Sugar Bowl by Angela Belcher Epps

Salt in the Sugar Bowl by Angela Belcher Epps

Angela Belcher Epps writes quite a bit about abandonment, loss and healing. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and teaches at a public alternative school for teens and young adults who are at multiple risk of school dropout. Her stories and essays have appeared in several journals, anthologies, and magazines—including Reflections, Essence, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Ladies Home Journal, and Pembroke Magazine. Her novella titled Salt in the Sugar Bowl was released in 2013 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company. She was the recipient of a Resident Writer Award from Wildacres’ Owl’s Nest in Little Switzerland, NC. She is working on expanding her novella into a novel and completing a collection of short stories. She holds a B.A. degree from Hofstra University and an M.A.  degree from New York University, both in English/Creative Writing.

Angela Belcher Epps at Wonderland Book Club 2015

Angela Belcher Epps at Wonderland Book Club 2015 (Photo by Alice Osborn)

 

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Category: African American, Our Stories Too, United States of America

Comments (9)

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  1. Eloise Hilliard says:

    I feel like I know your mother. I reminisced about my mother as I read Perennials. I would like to visit Plymouth. I too have remember my parents’ house where I grew up until I married. I have fond memories of my parents’ garden and fruit trees, pecan trees and flowering plants. Wonderful. Wonderful.
    Love, Eloise

  2. Marie L Molin says:

    Beautiful story Ange, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Your mom’s sweet and gentle smile is permanently implanted in my memory bank. Interesting enough, I remember many years ago, you had begun splitting a large overgrown Snake plant from your home and graciously gifted me a few of the splits. I was afraid that I’d kill it but you encouraged me to give it a go. “These plants are hard to kill”, you told me. “Anyone can grow Snake plants”. I kept them in my classroom and had my students help me care for them throughout the years and split them several times over and re-gifted them to fellow teachers. I now have a huge one in my living room which is absolutely beautiful and almost an emerald green color. It’s amazing how it still stood upright and tall through the various changes in the temperature of that room. I now believe that it’s not that anyone can grow Snake plants, it’s that the plant itself knows that it is strong. Snake plants are reminders that we are all strong and can endure through the ever changing temperatures of life, we just need to believe that we are. Thank you so much for gifting me those splits so long ago, they have meant more to me than just “splits”. Love you my friend!💐

    • Oh Marie! This brings tears to my eyes! I love your analogy of snake plants representing our strength– which reminds me of those years that we were just across the parking lot from each other! Some of my absolute fondest memories are of those times– when we were city transplants establishing roots in North Carolina. My journey would have not been as joyful if we hadn’t become such good friends and, indeed, part of an extended family who weathered literal and figurative storms together– thriving like the snake plant in various temperatures! I love you too.

  3. Lonnie says:

    For all there is to revel in your wondrous gifts as a writer, what I’ve enjoyed most over the years are the new insights that your stories reveal into a beautiful soul I already feel I know so well. Our shared love for your mother and roots in that special place all serve to make “Perennials” a unique favorite among your works for me! Thanks for sharing and being, cuz!
    Yours,
    Lonnie

    • Thank you Lonnie! I’m so glad “Perennials” is a favorite because it does capture a very elemental aspect of my nature. I find the greatest peace when I’m with plants and soil! I shared this love not only with my own mother but with yours as well. I often feel that Elvin “joins” me on the hill when I garden here at my house because, together, we pulled the roots to make the ground “tillable” when I moved here. I also have one of Elvin’s plants at the foot of my front steps. It does nothing to enhance the area, but it reminds me of her, and I refuse to move it.
      Love,
      Angie

  4. Crystal says:

    What I enjoy most about this story is that you highlight, with a very skilled pen I might add, your Mother’s best attribute. When someone is good at something, folks gravitate to it, often overlooking lesser qualities and other flaws. When my mother died, ten years ago now, I remember thinking she was poor and black, not a great cook and could not grow a weed if she tried. What would folks remember as her strength? It was then I begin to write regularly and as I wrote I remembered what an good storyteller she was, almost a folklorist. It is hard to write imagery and metaphor and she could tell it in a short, tightly-packed story… And, she’d always leave you thinking or feeling something unexpected. That was talent and I realized then that’s why I was meant to be a writer. I had learned, by observing her, how to tell a story well. As you know, it’s so joyous being a writer. You could have simply felt all this, or told it in brief story to someone over coffee, but it is here, every fine word, for countless people to read for years to come. Kudos, friend!

  5. Jody says:

    Beautiful essay Angie! Now you need to get Lady Vanessa in the garden:)

  6. Mali Warshofsky says:

    Angela,

    Needless to say that this is such an articulate and profound telling.
    Besides the beauty that you tell, what I love about this story is that it provoked me to think and remember my mom and her quiet strengths, the hidden bond that formed between us as grown women.

    I think that everyone reading this remembers their own mom and the meaning she brought to their lives: and that is priceless! Thank you Angela.

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