Finding a way to keep my mother’s memory alive in my garden

branches of a white dogwood tree against the sky

By Megan Hanlon

If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk through my garden forever.


It started with a dogwood tree. 

I was in Ohio when my mother died on a cold and snowy day in February, and everything was colorless. A few weeks into my dark grief, my uncle suggested planting a tree in her memory. He had visited my parents decades before during a California spring, where the weather is mild and brilliant colors ripple for miles. They drove down a neighborhood street lined with riotously blooming dogwood trees and ever since, he said, the sight of a dogwood reminded him of my mom.

I had moved more than a thousand miles away just two months before her death, to my first place that wasn’t an apartment. Planting a living thing to honor her hard life that ended too soon was a balm to my raw heart. This tree would be a symbol of her, a sapling I could hold on to despite all I’d lost. 

We planted the dogwood in May, with a cold wind whipping its steadfast leaves. Its mottled gray trunk was as thin as my mother’s arms and almost the same color. It nestled into the ground much like her ashes would settle on the rocky soil of the Rocky Mountains five years later. In death as in life, she would be surrounded by nature’s bounty.

My mother could make anything grow, and she delighted in puttering around her screened-in porch which was full of life. We moved cross-country when I was six, towing behind our station wagon a U-Haul trailer packed with her houseplants. At each place we lived after that, she cultivated everything from climbing roses to lacy ferns, from chunky succulents to one untamable banana tree. She possessed not just green thumbs but green hands, kind and gentle, and a nature that could raise anything but herself. 

As a young adult, I was never good at things that needed to be cultivated—opportunities, relationships, flowers. I would forget to nourish, drag it into too much harsh light or let it wither in darkness, invariably forget that everything alive needs tending. Just out of college I unwittingly killed some English ivy, a hardy houseplant that’s known for its easy-to-grow nature. Because of distance, trauma, and poor health, my relationship with my mom never got the chance to blossom like I’d hoped. 

But at my new home, my mom’s dogwood grew. Thicker and taller as years passed, the opposite of her own trajectory through decades of mental and physical illness. Its roots pushed deep into the hard soil, its creamy white blossoms exploded like stars every June. In my front yard, it flourished. I was surprised as well as heartened. This tree sprouted in me hope that life goes on in spite of the past. 

Soon I began buying other plants. Bright tulips, fragrant hyacinths. Roses reminiscent of the climbing varieties my mother trained up the brick walls of our house. A weeping white cherry tree that doubled in width, an audaciously pink azalea that attracted hummingbirds (another favorite of my mom’s). 

Without explanation, these plants suddenly thrived under my care. And I grew, too, learning how to tend them—roses only bloom on new growth, so prune judiciously; daffodils require the dark cold of winter in order to open their sunny yellow faces in spring. So many lessons that nature already knew, that my mother must have known but didn’t have time to share, I applied to my own life.

A part of me—the part that still makes wishes on dandelion fluff—believes this is my mother’s legacy that she bestowed to me after death. The ability to encourage and celebrate life where there was none, to make stunning flowers appear out of dirt. It is her regular reminder to me to find the good in whatever I am handed, and perhaps a promise that wherever she is, it is beautiful. 

During the growing months, I tend my plants as often as I would call my mom those last months from so far away. Like her, I find pleasure in ministering to the delicate blooms and glossy leaves of these quiet companions. And there is comfort in knowing I am carrying on the same rituals that she prized.

Though she’s been gone more than 14 years, I can still find her in my garden. 

Megan Hanlon is a work-at-home-mom who grew up in Texas. She now resides in Ohio with her husband, two children, and a disobedient Boston terrier. This spring she is planting hellebores, astilbe, and coral bells. Read more here or follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @sugarpigblog.   

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