My first memories of “going to see Papaw” meant catching sight of the lilies crowding each other for room along the south length of his house. My sisters and I called them “Papaw’s Lilies.” Who knew they had a real name? Summer childhood visits meant sleeping in the high-ceilinged bedroom with no air conditioning, windows raised to take advantage of any stirring breeze. The lilies with their heady aroma in full bloom beneath the window, relaxed and readied us for the “pleasant dreams” wished to us by our aunts.
My sisters and I had no clue that Mama had rescued the lilies and replanted them in her youth. The long arm of Mama’s green thumb gardening began with moving a clump of those milk-and-wine crinum lilies from a fence corner to line the side of their home. After that, the only time the lilies were ever touched was to take out a clump for a pass-along plant.
We did know about Mama’s love of gardening. In numerous family moves, the furniture was hardly arranged in a different house before Mama took herself to the yard with any outside task taking precedence over an inside one. Four girls could dust and wash dishes and one could cook, so Mama moved happily outside to see what was blooming, pick off a tomato worm, or pull a few weeds.
Church members brought flowers for the Sunday morning altar table. Mama considered it the pastor’s wife’s perk to reclaim any that were left on Monday morning. If they looked promising for rooting, she stuck their stems into the ground without benefit of rooting medium. The rest she arranged for the dining table or the piano. Plants took root and grew, seeming to know their responsibility. Before long, people asked, “Mrs. McGee, what kind of rose is that?” or “What’s the name of that shrub?”
Her answer always had a person’s name. “That’s Miss Tilda’s rose that she brought Mother’s Day,” or “That’s Miss Birdie’s blue hydrangea from her bouquet in early July.”
Mama also had an eye for how flowers should fill a vase. One prolific flower gardener showed up early each Sunday with a bounty of cut flowers. Mama created beautiful arrangements for church and arrangements for her dining table or the piano with the leftovers. Imagine the chagrin of this lady when a new pastor’s wife replaced Mama. When she brought her abundance on Sunday morning, the shocked new pastor’s wife said, “I don’t know how to arrange flowers.”
“But,” stammered the lady, “Mrs. McGee always did.”
Mama enjoyed the original milk-and-wine lilies when they moved back to Papaw’s house in retirement though she had placed “starts” of them in many parsonage yards. In her last days, Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Mama of her memory but not her pleasure in wandering the yard, touching her flowers.
The lilies, originals and pass-alongs, have outlived Mama, who died at eighty-seven. The long arm of her green thumb continues with varied success in her children and grandchildren. Plants who understand the responsibility to grow and bloom seems most pronounced when one visits with her daughter Gwyn Pennebaker who gardens in New Albany, Mississippi; her granddaughter Anna Lane who digs the dirt in Longview, Texas; or her grandson Murray Butler who coaxes flowers to bloom in the desert of Chandler, Arizona. I even have her lilies in my yard.
I relish my vision of Mama, now that she’s made her last move to her long home, visiting the heavenly gardens to gather flowers for a welcoming arrangement on St. Peter’s check-in desk – centered with the tall stalk of a milk-and-wine lily.