Thursday, May 14, 2015

The White Gardenia

Every year on my birthday, from the time I turned 12, one white gardenia was delivered anonymously to me at my house. There was never a card or note, and calls to the florist were in vain, because the purchase was always made in cash. After a while, I stopped trying to discover the identity of the sender. I just delighted in the beauty and heady perfume of that one magical, perfect white flower nestled in folds of soft pink tissue paper. But I never stopped imagining who the sender might be. Some of my happiest moments were spent in day dreams about someone wonderful and exciting, but too shy or eccentric to make known his or her identity. In my teen years, it was fun to speculate that the sender might be a boy I had a crush on, or even someone I didn't know who had noticed me. 

My mother often contributed to my speculations. She'd ask me if there was someone for whom I had done a special kindness, who might be showing appreciation anonymously. She reminded me of the times when I'd been riding my bike and our neighbor drove up with her car full of groceries and children. I always helped her unload the car and made sure the children didn't run into the road. Or maybe the mystery sender was the old man across the street. I often retrieved his mail during the winter, so he wouldn't have to venture down his icy steps. 

My mother did her best to foster my imagination about the gardenia. She wanted her children to be creative. She also wanted us to feel cherished and loved, not just by her, but by the world at large. 

When I was 17, a boy broke my heart. The night he called for the last time, I cried myself to sleep. When I awoke in the morning, there was a message scribbled on my mirror in red lipstick: "Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive." I thought about that quotation from Emerson for a long time, and I left it where my mother had written it until my heart healed. When I finally went for the glass cleaner, my mother knew that everything was all right again. 

But there were some hurts my mother couldn't heal. A month before my high school graduation, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My feelings ranged from simple grief to abandonment, fear, distrust and overwhelming anger that my dad was missing some of the most important events in my life. 

I became completely uninterested in my upcoming graduation, the senior-class play and the prom - events that I had worked on and looked forward to. I even considered staying home to attend college instead of going away as I had planned because it felt safer. 

My mother, in the midst of her own grief, wouldn't hear of me missing out on any of these things. The day before my father died, she and I had gone shopping for a prom dress and had found a spectacular one -- yards and yards of dotted Swiss in red, white and blue. Wearing it made me feel like Scarlett O'Hara. But it was the wrong size, and when my father died the next day, I forgot all about the dress. 

My mother didn't. The day before the prom, I found the dress waiting for me -- in the right size. It was draped majestically over the living room sofa, presented to me artistically and lovingly. I may not have cared about having a new dress, but my mother did. 

She cared how we children felt about ourselves. She imbued us with a sense of the magic in the world, and she gave us the ability to see beauty even in the face of adversity. 

In truth, my mother wanted her children to see themselves much like the gardenia -- lovely, strong, perfect, with an aura of magic and perhaps a bit of mystery. 

My mother died when I was 22, only 10 days after I was married. 

That was the year the gardenias stopped coming.

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