My Mother’s Hydrangea is a Nostalgia I Cannot Cultivate

By Neva Knott

Not much has made me feel alive lately. The recession knocked me hard, in a way I didn’t think it would. You see, I’ve been working since I was 14, have always had a least one job, often times two–teaching during the year and bartending in the summer. Unwittingly, on the day I was laid off in 2009, one of my students said he felt badly for me, to which I–this is the unwitting part–said, “It’s okay; I bounce pretty well.

I used to, to bounce. On Wednesday I’d decide to change my life a little, try something different, move here or there, and by Thursday it was done.

I could write out the particulars of what followed for you, dear reader, but I won’t. I’ll spare you, because really, another person’s drama is really their own ordeal. I’ll spare you the details of the horrible abusive boss at the bartending job, of the round two break-up with an ex (but I will tell you, that adage that giving someone a second chance to love you is like giving him a loaded gun to shoot you with). I’ll spare you the details of moving to a town I left at 18, vowing never to return because it makes me feel like a huge fish in a small, stagnant, boring fishbowl.

I will give you the scene of how now came to be, though. Rock bottom looked like this:

I was sitting on the couch in my apartment in Portland on a Monday night in May. With the loser ex, wondering yet again why I hadn’t kicked him out yet–which was a sure signed I’d lost my bounce. It was about 10 PM. That day, I’d taken my dog to the vet to generate his pre-quarantine blood work so we could move back to Maui at the end of the summer, when I was done with graduate school. Jason and I were watching TV, probably an episode of Burn Notice. The lights were off, the dog at my feet, and my cell phone rang. The screen announced the caller, Uncle Dick. Without answering, I knew. My uncle works early so turns in for the night around 8 PM. The only reason he’d be calling me at 10 PM was because mom was–well, I knew it was bad.

She’d fallen and her legs wouldn’t work to draw her back up, to standing, sitting on the floor, or onto the couch. Thankfully, she’d had the phone on the couch with her. My cousin had had a baby that past Friday, and mom was anticipating updates. So she called her brother, Uncle Dick, who called the medics–they beat him to the house. He took care of the rush of the emergency, and told me not to come until morning.

I got to Olympia–two hours north of Portland–the next morning, damned early and low on sleep. My aunt drove in from the coast. We met at Starbucks, bolstered ourselves the best we could, and headed to the hospital.

Long story short, my mom had lung cancer, and it had metastasized to her brain. The scan later that day showed she had 26 small tumors in her head. Five weeks. She lived five weeks, and it was my job–with the help of my sister, aunt and uncles–to commandeer her care. And then to execute her estate. The days and weeks were a constant swirl of conversations with rushed doctors in white coats or with touchy-feely grief support personnel.

That first night, the one I’d been on the couch watching Burn Notice, letting my mind float between my plan of returning to Maui and the nagging question of why I was putting up with Jason, the medics had told Uncle Dick that, given the conditions mom was living in, she most likely would not be allowed to return home. Harsh news, but, what I’d suspected, maybe even feared.

Let me pause here to explain that my mom and I were not a good match. I don’t know if it’s harder to watch your mom die when you are close to her, or to watch your mom die when you tried and tried and couldn’t save her from herself, nor could you have a regular mom and daughter relationship with her. It’s been two years, and I still don’t know the answer to that question.

My aunt–her name is Darlene and she’s my mom’s sister–went to the hospital, saw mom, helped her talk to the doctors, and asked our own probing questions. Mom had to go for more tests or scans or some sort of prodding, so we left for a bit to get some lunch. And to swing by the house. By now we’d talked to Uncle Dick and had heard his horrific description. I had sneaked mom’s keys out of her purse so we could let ourselves in.

Oh my god. After my step-dad died in 2000, mom had taken the “fuck it, it’s my house” attitude and had started smoking inside. Shortly after, she had stopped letting family come over. I think the last time I was in the house was 2003, and it was so smoke-filled I had to wait outside, for fear of a migraine. Because of that memory, I stepped into this hellish version of mom’s previously beautifully kempt house with a cloth over my nose.

Oh my god. She hadn’t dusted forever. The nicotine had mingled with regular house particulate matter and had formed inches thick dreadlocks that dropped from bookshelves, lampshades, figurines. The kitchen counter was piled with peanut packets and cookie wrappers. The area she nested in–previously the family room–was scattered with clothes and papers. She’d taken to using a dinner plate as an ashtray. It was full, and small trash bags–the kitchen size–of cigarette butts sat on the kitchen counter.

Oh my god.

My sister arrived from eastern Washington the next day. She came directly to the hospital, and then went to the house. In her nervousness, she began to clean. Later, she sent me a text with a picture of a microwave and a couch–I was confused, was she shopping? No, she’d gotten through layers of the mess at mom’s.

I have to let you in on the secret–we’d sworn to mom that no one would go to the house. She even made me take her credit card and buy her the hospital necessaries–robe, slippers, face lotion. It was our big scam. By day we’d sit in the hospital room with mom, and at night we’d clean.

Flash forward. We got the house pretty well cleaned but then had no idea what to do with it. I didn’t think anyone would buy it with the smelly carpet from 1984. Even the kitchen cabinets were saturated with nicotine.

I’ll shorten the story here–I moved in. I’d didn’t go to Maui, I didn’t dump Jason until during the move, when he decided to sit in a bar and ignore his phone for two hours while I packed and cleaned. That was 2012 and I’ve been working on this house since. Most days I want to light a match and drive away.

As my work year ended, I proclaimed this the summer of the yard. I traveled a bit first, to Cork, Ireland and then to Boston. I got home, slept off my too-early departure, and dug in.

Literally. And that’s how I began to feel my vitality flow back in.

When I started, the front lawn was really just scratching dead stuff mixed with dandelions. Planting beds encircled it, and were full of overgrown heather and rhododendrons–the state flower, but are better in the forest than a yard. There were some tough old azaleas, too, and one huge pink-flowering cherry tree. And hydrangea everywhere, under the windows.

My mother’s hydrangea is a nostalgia I cannot cultivate. I want the modern yard–low maintenance, water efficient. I’m more of the grown food, not lawns mentality.

So I dug in. I called an arborist to have the cherry cut out. I hacked and pulled until all the heather and azaleas and rhododendrons were gone. I spent two days rototilling and then called the yard guy to clear, haul, level and lay sod. Not much different than after Adam died, not much different than how I dealt with that upset. I realized that I was stuck in my own metaphor, this perpetual trauma cycle. Here’s the thing about trauma–normal falls away because the traumatized person (me) is always dealing with a crisis, with some big event and the little stuff, like pulling weeds, is shoved aside until the crisis is averted. Then, there’s a huge pile of daily living to catch up on.

All I really want to do is grow vegetables. So, I used the yard project as a way to begin to normalize. And that’s the story I really want to tell here…


Food security is a level of self-sufficiency I’ve aspired to even before it was a thing. One morning over coffee this summer in Boston, I thumbed through a high-end cooking magazine. One article was full of pictures of pretty girls, clean girls, in fun dresses and cowboy boots, each holding a basket of the bounty of their labors. I looked at the friend I was visiting and said, “The articles made growing your own food all about the dresses and boots…that’s not really what it takes.” Bryan replied, with a hump of a laugh, “I know.”

The day I began rototilling, I wore ripped, paint-stained Levi’s and my graduate school logo t-shirt. After about an hour, I had sweat in my hair and down my face. Rototilling is dusty work. I spat. After the first pass across the front yard, I looked as if I’d never seen the inside of an Aveda salon. Next task was to rake up the old grass and dandelions, really, it was dandelions with some grass mixed in, and dispose of them. I hadn’t really planned that part of the job. So, I raked all the debris into piles, then put three or four piles per load into the wheelbarrow and walked down around the corner to the place between our houses and the schoolyard where everyone dumps lawn clippings. It took ten trips, and then my old front yard was a semi-circle of mounds.

Then I realized I didn’t have the tools to level and grade the front yard or to roll out the sod–which has to be done quickly so that it doesn’t dry out. So I called a guy. Two days later, I had a level green and grassy front yard. And a row under the living room windows for my own kind of flowers, and a row between the grass and sidewalk for trees. The side yard was down to bare soil. My plan was to make it raised vegetable beds.

Each day, I’d complete a piece of the schematic I’d drawn. The logic of the work kept my mind soothed and engaged, vibrant even. The physicality of it allowed my body to let go of strains and tightness. Together, the planning, thinking, mind-work, and movement of the execution made me feel vital. For the first time since I’d moved to Olympia two years ago when this whole mess fell into my circle of responsibility, I felt like I was living my life. Each night, I’d shower and the dirt would run off my skin. My hair was matted and held together by sweat and dust. I had blisters. And I was connected to the earth and my own sense of being.

A month later, the yard was filled with blueberry bushes, herbs, flowers, a copse of new birch trees, two paper-bark maples and a bit of shrubbery. I put in river rock for edges and flag stones as a path to the back yard. I have garden space enough to grow a bounty, enough to share, to freeze or to can. When that work is done, I’ll put on a fancy dress and my cowboy boots. Until then, I’ll dig and plant and spit, and sweat and feel alive.

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