It must have been because I was a child, and she was old and to think of her as young, as a bride, looking somehow vulnerable, would have been like trying to imagine a foreign country. At the time, I could only understand her as she was, my grandmother, my fearsome one, not the one who made me tea in cups the size of bathtubs in her yellow kitchen after school, but the one whose displeasure you never wanted to rouse by failing to hold your fork and knife the right way at the dining-room table. She was so proper, so highly mannered, that even now, writing this about her, in a public forum, makes me feel uneasy. She wouldn’t have approved.
That’s why lily of the valley always brings her back in my memory. I see them coming up in the garden, and I imagine her more fully, as the far more complex person I never came to know, someone who thought about flowers, who delighted in the flash of birds, who once kept a diary of her daily observations. I don’t know how much of that girl survived to old age.
As a child, I would have seen the black-and-white portrait of her that I later kept in my possession, after she died. It was taken on her wedding day in the 1920s, a flapper bride, with a lace headdress draped tightly across the brow of her pretty face and fastened at the sides. She held a huge bouquet of lily of the valley. It was her favourite flower. The photograph was of her profile, looking forward, away from the camera, toward her future and whatever she hoped it would be.
They are so delicate, those little flowers, unfurling slowly like a wish you dare not utter. In every garden I’ve had, I have planted some in the hope that they’ll multiply and spread, magic as time, across the ground, becoming more.
And when I look at them, or pick a few stems to put in a small vase, I think of youth – hers, mine, everyone’s – how quickly it goes and sometimes gets forgotten, overlooked, pruned back for the beautiful vulnerability it was.