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Splashes of purple

Memories of my mother’s mother’s mother’s garden

Text & Image Harriet Smith

According to my mum, Mamma (my mother’s mother’s mother), lived in a ‘bad’ part of town. Mamma’s council house was well past its expiry date. It was cheap, short-term, post-war council housing which was still heated by a coal fire in the early 2000s. However, it did have both a front and back garden. The front garden was long and narrow, the width of the small two-storey semi-detached house. A small wooden gate opened into a long stone path with a neat grassy lawn to its right, and a low green hedge bordering the perimeter. In the borders, Mamma planted flowers. Tall purple flowers used to attract so many bees and other pollinators that I would run down the path with my sister in summer, scared of the buzzing. We visited every Saturday morning, running towards hugs that smelt floral, and a full table of food. Mamma’s generosity extended from her family to her garden. Walking through her kitchen door, past a small coal shed, into the back garden, it was possible to get lost among the flowers. Planting of various heights caught different spots of sunshine throughout the day with areas of long grass reminiscent of meadow patches. Her garden was a play space, a learning space, and a space of care, love and joy.

Her daughter, my mother’s mother, who I have always referred to as Mor-Mor, seemed to have this same love of gardening. I remember her living in several homes around Nottingham. They always had a greenhouse and a garden filled with magic. In spring, purple and yellow flowers would appear across Mor-Mor’s garden, along with tiny clumps of flowers on tiny strawberry plants. Most vividly, I remember the shades of purple, both within and surrounding Mor-Mor’s home.

Memories suggest distance, a journey backwards through time. I lost Mamma when I was eighteen. Her age softened the loss, as her memory faded with dementia. It felt like she left the earth somewhat slowly. I wish I could bring her a ceramic vase I made that she could fill with flowers from her garden. I lost Mor-Mor when I was twenty-two, receiving a call during a workday and rushing back to Nottingham by train. That day, she lost a roughly fifteen-year battle with cancer, which she had only informed us of in the final year. At twenty-two, working in London, I dealt with the pain through drinking, emotional, but in a socially acceptable manner. I don’t drink anymore, so I have had to find new ways to make space for the waves of grief that accompany deep loss.

In Amsterdam, I had my first balcony, and the first plant I bought was lavender, followed by small purple pansies. Both plants are perennials, returning every year without much effort. In their splashes of purple, the memories of both Mamma and Mor-Mor are alive. I can feel both joy at the memories and grief at the loss of their earthly presence. I tend flowers knowing I am continuing the labour of love the women in my family have always had for gardening. Over time, I have realised I need a home within myself for grief; I am changed by witnessing the death of a beloved companion. It is not a constant grief, but from time to time it blooms unexpectedly. It feels healthy to acknowledge the compassionate supportive figures I have lost. Memories and grief are encapsulated in the fragrant purple blooms on sunny days.

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