In May I always think primarily about my mother, Agnes Paterson Wilson Membrino, always called Nancy. She was married in May, the iris that she loved to grow are always blooming in May, and she died nine years ago May 6th. It is fitting that as I was digging around in the garden today, Memorial Day, that I be thinking about her.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1919, she, her parents and two of her sisters packed all their belongings and took a steamer to the US. My grandfather, George Findlay Wilson was one of 11 young men who pooled their savings to buy a ranch in Ukiah, California. My mom was a towheaded California girl, living her early years running through the grasses and climbing cherry trees on the ranch. In her 14th year her father died of cancer and she, her mother and sisters moved outside of San Francisco. She went to Mount Tamalpias High School and dreamed of learning to fly an airplane. Engaged to a young man and pilot named Woody, she planned to follow him to Montana to settle and start a shuttle service with him into the wild. Woody never made it back from the war.
Mom and Dad, Alfred Joseph Membrino, met at a dance hall in San Francisco. He was stationed in Hawaii, in the Air Force, after Pearl Harbor and was an decoder and personal secretary for a hot-shot general nicknamed Red. Nan and Al were married back in his hometown of Fitchburg, MA, in 1946, and Mom had left the west coast forever.
One bit of glue for them was their mutual love of gardening. After I was born in 1956 my parents made plans to build a house up the street from my father's parents. When I was 5 we moved into it. It was a modest but modern appointed home with gardens surrounding it. I learned all about what plants looked like in every season, how to fertilize them, when to prune, and how to weed. We never bought vegetables at the market and until I went to college I had never had vegetables out of a can. Mom spent her summer days between caring for her 50 foot x 50 foot patch of bearded iris, the other flower gardens and canning and preserving the fruits of my Dad's huge vegetable garden. The last year of Dad's life he had planted 250 tomato plants alone, as well as every other vegetable you can think of. Do you have any idea how many tomatoes you get from that many plants? Hundreds and hundreds of pounds. Mom learned how to cook the best tomato sauce from her husband's mother and with the home grown tomatoes, it was a knock out.
Dad died in 1979 from cancer. My father's willing and wonderful smile is something I try to emulate every day of my life. He was a fair and honest man with a great sense of humor and a strong sense of family. Having lost all his hair in his thirties to a hair loss disease, he lived most of his adult life with a bald head. It was his trademark. He had a comb that was solid plastic before the tines were cut out and he would whip it out at gatherings to "comb" his head to the laughter of all around. For most of my adult life, I have missed the company of my father, similar to my mother's experience losing her dad so young. For at least a year after my dad died, I don't think my mother did much of anything. Her gardens were a bit unkempt and dad's vegetable garden never did get planted again.
Then all of a sudden a change came over her and she decided to live her life with gusto. She sold the house in Fitchburg, moving permanently into our summer home on Cape Cod. As well as being a pilot wanna-be, she had always wanted to paint. While setting aside the dream of flight, she began painting watercolors of her beloved iris, a few of which she had transplanted to the Cape house. Her garden there was a condensed version of all the flowers she loved: iris, peonies, delphinium, roses, daisies; a real cottage garden straight out of an English postcard, surrounding a shaker clad Cape style home. She painted and sold her paintings for probably near 20 years. Late onset diabetes knocked on her door not long after she turned 60, but she handled it carefully and so well that only in her later years was it a problem. Mom lost her eyesight in her late seventies and moved in with me for the last four years of her life. Death slowly took chunks out of her until there was so little of her left that it was alarming.
However, on the day that she died, I sat talking to her and her nurse as she told the nurse about one of her "ranch" stories. She lucidly spoke with twinkling eyes of climbing the cherry tree when she was only 3 or 4 because she just loved cherries. Anyone who has a cherry tree knows that the fruit grows high in the top canopy of the tree. Ladders are usually employed to pick them. She had been warned by her mother to stay out of the tree, but fell prey to her desires and climbed high into it anyway. Betty, her eldest sister, started yelling for her mother to get Nancy out of the tree so she started grabbing every cherry she could get her hands on, shoving them in her mouth and swallowing, pits, stems and all. Laughingly she recalled that she was pooping stems and pits for days after. I had never heard that story told before as I had heard so many others.
As I remember my mom, I can recall so many wonderful memories. I have the remainder of her paintings, some lovingly displayed in my home. I have her drawings, her photos, her and dad's love letters (which I have never read), her high school scrap books, her favorite jewelry and so many other things with which to remember. Yet there are times when I just wonder about the things I will never know, the stories she never told, the pictures of people from a long time ago who I don't know or recognize. Today as I trimmed the bearded iris which have bloomed and past, I remembered how she would spend her summer cutting back the leaves to force the plant to grow it's roots and not it's leaves. I know this because of her. The iris that bloomed are from cuttings of her iris roots. The magenta peony in my garden which is budded and ready to burst open is a transplant from her Cape garden, which is a transplant from the Fitchburg garden, which is a transplant from my Grandmother's garden. This Memorial Day and every one I am blessed to have in the future will be filled with happy memories of those whose lives touched mine in such a profound way.
The garden above is the first garden I planted when Tony and I moved into our home in Smithfield. It was a mound of grasses and weeds when we first got there. I got out my dad's pitchfork and dug the whole thing with a bit of help from my son Peter Wilson, aptly named for his grandmother's family. Three years later it has mellowed. The peonies are loving all the compost I lavish on them, as my mother instructed, and the Siberian iris are in full bloom right now. Edged by creeping flox and large stones, this garden is a nod to my mother's garden. If not for the rabbits it would also sport delphinium and daisies. Some days I just like gazing at it searching for the tiny fairies who keep it and finding instead my mother's smile.