My mother-in-law Mary Jo and I had one common reference point: Cliff. Her son, my husband.

Even then, we would have disagreed across the board on his welfare. Pick a topic, any topic. We were decidedly different women.

However, I did learn something valuable from her.

She told me once about a lost opportunity with her oldest granddaughter. She’d always planned to take the little girl to a local restaurant known for its afternoon teas. All lace and frills and classical music, she thought it would be fun, a treasured memory.

But she never got around to it and didn’t seem to know why. I urged her to follow through, even though the girl was in college at this point. “Take her by surprise,” I suggested. “There’s still time. She’s not too old for your attention.”

But she didn’t. She chose to carry that regret.

In all fairness, I understand what she didn’t say and probably couldn’t have accepted anyway. My

mother-in-law lived a paralyzing life of restraint, suspicion, traversing a never-ending trail of domestic sharp edges marked by her husband’s edicts and selected Old Testament scriptures for warning signs.

Cliff has always called the situationwalking on eggshells.” He would know, having grown up in that house.

So I did my best to avoid taking moments for granted when we brought Maggie home from China. Give her life’s lovely details, became my mantra.

One day my mother Betty was in our living room, watching as I sat on the staircase beside Maggie. At 18 months, she wanted to descend on her own. Terrified to hold the rail and walk down, she bravely scooted on her bottom, gripping my hand in hers. It took quite a while.

Carrying her down would have been so much quicker.

But we would have missed so much, too–her squealing giggles, her wiggling confidence when we reached the last step. My mother clapped for her.

“Honey,” my mother said, “you’re a much better mother than I ever was.” I shook my head and reminded her of that beautiful, spotless house. “Dust covers everything in here,” I admitted.

“Our house never had to be that clean,” she said.

Again, regret. Watching us, step by step, had offered a silent space for perspective on years of lost experiences. But also, a surprising glimpse of me as a mother. I understood, then, she clapped for me as well.

So this summer, as I looked at the blank expanse of our garden, I thought about what to plant and remembered showing Maggie, when she was a toddler, how to make snapdragons “talk” by squeezing the petals at a garden store. She was as enchanted as I had been when my mother, who grew an annual bed of snaps, as she called them, showed me. Sweet alyssum always graced the edges.

Easy as it would have been, I never planted them for Maggie. I was focused on creating some other floral effect.

So this summer I planted snaps and alyssum for Maggie. They weren’t as lusciously perfect as my mother’s, but at least I didn’t stop in my tracks because my collegiate daughter is long past yard playing.

They simply grow for her.

And for Mary Jo and Betty, their regrets buried beneath the summer blossoms.

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12 thoughts on “Snapdragons

  1. I'm pleased to know my words resonated with you. My mother was all about the details. Even when she scrubbed and dusted our house to high heaven, she made a game of it to keep me involved–a point she'd forgotten over the years.


  2. Karen, this blog deeply touched my heart! Every time I read something you've written I am so grateful that you choose to share your gifts of insight and expression. I have parented Sophie similarly, and for the same reasons. My version of giving her “life's lovely details” was “stop and smell the roses,” literally. And we wouldn't just smell the roses, but we would touch the sumptuously-soft petals, then push our noses in deep to breathe their perfume.


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