Two years ago on return from holidays I found a small, nondescript plant in my flower bed. It wasn’t unusual for one of my folks to plant something in my garden while they were checking on the house, but I didn’t think it a particularly great spot, or much of a shrub at that, so I pulled it out and set it aside.
A week or so later Dad mentioned in passing that he’d planted a peony for me while I’d been away. I was distraught! I’d only recently admired the stunning cerise pink peony in my parents’ garden and so he had bought one and planted it for me with little ceremony, as was his way.
As soon as I could get home that day, I dashed out to my garden and replanted the plant in the very spot which somehow now seemed perfect. But to no avail – for over a year and a half, its withered twigs and tattered leaves did little more than taunt me for my carelessness.
Over the years, Mum and Dad passed on their green-fingered love of gardening and flowers to me and my siblings and their grandchildren. Dad taught the children to grow potatoes in a sack and helped them to collect worms and bugs when they were still of an age to think it a good idea.
Whenever they came to visit my house, the first thing my folks would always do was the Grand Inspection. Dad would lead, Mum taking up the rear. I would follow a few paces behind, trying to appear nonchalant, but underneath it all I was really just ever the child, eager to please her parents.
“That hebe needs pruning,” Dad would say, or “You need to water that clematis”.
He was never one to mince words, our Dad.
“I know, I know,” I’d say a little irritated. “I haven’t had a spare minute this week.”
“Roses are looking good though.”
And I’d smile and nod before heading in to make the tea.
All the while Mum would be quietly busying herself clipping a few dead leaves or tidying up a potted geranium.
My garden is but a patch really, a couple of small flower beds and a myriad of planted pots which change with the seasons. Over the years Dad installed a water barrel to save the rain water from the shed roof, and in the early days when he was still in the full of his health, he built a small wall to create a layered flower bed where an old shed had once stood. He filled an old packing crate with earth and planted lettuce and scallions for me every year, and he returned from holidays one year with a gift of a dolphin shell mobile for the garden wall. The end result being that a very small patch of earth is packed with a lifetime of love.
That said, Dad had his limits – he rolled his eyes at the solar lighting that Mum and I favoured all year round, and was never a big fan of my Beatrix Potter miniatures.
Dad couldn't possibly have known when he planted the peony how much comfort those flowers would bring one day
Our hearts broke last year when our lovely Dad lost his long battle with illness. In the weeks and months after his death, and still today, I feel closest to him in my garden. Each plant, every corner, holds a story, a connection to the man I loved and miss every day. After his death, Mum and I would console ourselves in our loss by finding reasons to frequent the local garden centre and add to the stories with a new memory of our own, a new plant or pot.
It was at this time that I became obsessed by the quest to recover the peony Dad had planted the previous year. By then it was looking very sad – little more than a grim reflection of our own grief. I researched whether I should I cut it back or repot it. I consulted multiple internet sites, experts in garden centres, gardening books – and of course Mum, the other gardening aficionado of the family. All advice said to just leave the peony be, that it would eventually bloom of its own accord.
But I was sceptical. I felt guilty and sad that I had been so quick to whip it out the day I found it resting uninvited in my garden. If only I could have that day, that moment back. I was worried that moving it again would end any chance it might have, so reluctantly I followed the advice and left that withered, sad plant to itself to withstand the snow, frost and freezing temperatures of our last Irish winter.
And then on an otherwise uneventful day in April, I happened to glance down at the flower bed and couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted several healthy, robust new red shoots popping out of the ground. Tears in my eyes, I ran inside to tell Mum who had been staying with me for a few weeks. She smiled sweetly at the news, and wiped away a stray tear of her own.
Our parents would have been 50 years married the month Dad died. As fate would so cruelly have it, just three weeks ago our beautiful, kind Mum quite suddenly lost her own brave battle with cancer. The sun has split the heavens every day since Mum left us, helping a little to warm our broken hearts and enabling me to sit out in the garden until late at night, just to feel close to them.
And then just this week, in the run up to Father’s Day, Dad’s peony burst into full flower. Six deep pink blooms appeared, one each for Mum and Dad and each of their four children. Dad couldn’t possibly have known when he planted the peony how much comfort those flowers would bring one day, and how perfect their blossoming would be. But nature is a mystical thing, there’s so much about the natural world that we don’t understand. One thing is for sure, the vibrant beauty of the flowers feels like a heartwarming gift from a father who often chose the garden to show his love.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. We hope you and Mum are up there together now inspecting the garden, not an ache or a care in the world.
Jennifer Barrett is author of novels The Songbird's Way and Look into the Eye, Poolbeg Press.