My daughter was two-and-a-half months old when my mother died in a car accident. I was still reeling with the aftermath of her death, closing accounts and returning library books, sorting a lifetime of possessions, when I found the grandparents book I had given her while I was pregnant. It was a book of prompts to help grandparents write the memories of their lives for their grandchildren.
My mother grew up on a farm, learned to type on a manual typewriter, and went from the age of radio to television to the internet. She moved to Alaska when it was still a territory, voted for statehood, and experienced the 1964 earthquake.
I wanted her to tell the stories of her life in her own words: about growing up in a town so small it didn’t have a schoolhouse; about working as a waitress at the Woolworth’s lunch counter while putting herself through business college; about the only vacation her family ever had, to Yellowstone National Park. And most of all I wanted her to tell the other stories: the ones she never thought to tell me, the ones I never thought to ask about.
But my mother died and her stories died with her.
For a few months before her death my mother had complained about shaky hands. She feared the Parkinson’s disease that her uncle suffered from was stalking her too. But she wouldn’t go to the doctor, no matter how much I pleaded or cajoled.
When I opened the grandparent’s book, it was empty, except for a few pages with post-it notes on them. On these she had written brief notes with a shaky hand. Her once beautiful Palmer script was practically illegible, even to me who knew her writing so well.
There were no stories there to give to the tiny baby sleeping in the other room.
Because I could not give my daughter her grandmother’s stories, I decided I would have to give her mine. I went through my mother’s photographs and slides. As I viewed each one I hoped a story would surface, some long-forgotten memory that my mother had shared with me. Instead, they raised questions.
When was the picture taken of my mother on horseback? I wanted to know more about this young woman smiling broadly at the photographer. I put a copy of the photo in a scrapbook. It has been ten years and I still don’t know what to write on that page.
I found another slide, a picture of pansies. According to the note penciled on the cardboard frame in beautiful, legible cursive, it was taken in the garden of her apartment in Durango, Colorado, where she attended business college.
There was pansy that grew by the front door of my childhood home in Alaska. The front door stood in the middle of a rectangular post-World-War II tract home that was not my mother’s first choice. She wanted the house in the other neighborhood, closer to church, with better schools, but this one was affordable for a single, working mother in an era when those were not so common.
A broken concrete path led to the front door. On each side of the door was a narrow flower bed that stretched to the end of the house. The one closest to the driveway was mine.
Every year, when the calendar promised a spring that the weather belied, we would go to the store where I would linger over the seed packets, choosing the annuals that would go in my flower bed once the weather agreed with the calendar. My mother always had pansies on her side.
After we had made our choices, we took our carefully selected seed-packets home and planted each seed in a thimble-sized plug of dirt in plastic seed trays, each tray becoming a miniature greenhouse when its lid was reattached. These we placed on our kitchen table, and as the grey remains of winter snow melted slowly in the cool Alaskan spring, our seeds sprouted. We nurtured our seedlings until finally it was time to set the tender plants in the ground and hope they survived the transition from cozy plastic greenhouse to the earth outside our front door.
Pansies, like all annuals, must be newly planted each year. But one of our pansies was a perennial. It surprised us one year by surviving the winter, hugging the foundation of the house just next to the aluminum screen door. After it survived the second winter we accepted that it would be there every year, bearing velvety blooms with deep violet-purple centers.
“There were always pansies,” I wrote on the scrapbook page I made for my daughter. Then I wrote the story of our perennial pansy on the page and added a picture from my mother’s garden in Durango. What made those pansies so special to my mother that she took their picture? I would never know.
I showed the page to my daughter and I told her the story of the pansies.
When my daughter was in the third grade, she was given the assignment to paint a picture in the style of Georgia O’Keefe. She painted a pansy.
“Because it was your mother’s favorite flower,” she said.
That’s how my daughter often refers to the woman who never had the chance to become a grandmother to her. I understand this, because I referred to my mother’s mother this way. Like my daughter, I know my grandmother only through snippets of stories.
I am named for her, but not directly because she hated her name, and so Ella became Elisabeth.
Her favorite hymn was In the Garden.
She was “almost seventeen” when she got married.
She was living in a nursing home as a result of injuries from a car accident when she died the day before I was born.
On my windowsill there is a small plastic tray with a lid, a miniature greenhouse with plugs of dirt where we have planted seeds. When they have sprouted, and we are sure the spring weather is here to stay, we will transplant them into flower pots next to the front door. Each year when we go to the store to buy the seeds, I ask my daughter,
“Which plants shall we choose?”
“We have to have pansies,” she says.