She’d been gone one month.
As the greenhouse plastic flapped in the autumn wind, the boys and I filled five white paper bags to the top with tulip bulbs. We carefully studied the placards posted over each bin and selected the perfect shades – plum, yellow, scarlet and orange – aiming for a symphony of raucous color come spring. Back home, surveying the raised beds in our garden, we intentionally chose the box in the back corner, the one we could see from just about every window facing the backyard.
I had envisioned an orderly display of flowers, concentric circles ringing the box like a proper English garden. But before I could stop him, my youngest son Rowan dumped the contents of all five bags into a single, mixed-up mound of bulbs in the dirt. It was just as well, and in some ways, perfectly fitting for her memorial garden. The boys’ grandmother, my mother-in-law Janice, had never been distracted by perfectionism. She would have much preferred Rowan’s enthusiasm and his eagerness to begin the planting over a formal garden any day.
As the elm dropped golden leaves, swirling like butterflies, the boys and I dug hole after hole and settled the bulbs snugly into the earth. Trowels clanking stones, clods of mud flying, we swished soil over papery skins and patted the dirt smooth. Hands aching, fingernails filthy, our faces streaked with grit, we sat back on our heels, satisfied with our work. I tore open the plastic from around the brand-new metal sign and pressed the sharp stick into the dirt near the front of the box. Janice’s garden was finished. Now we would wait.
All winter I watched from the window over the kitchen sink, the glass steaming from the hot water, my hands in warm suds. The bulbs slept beneath slush and cold snow as I scoured fry pans, rinsed stemware and brushed crumbs from the countertops into my cupped palm. Winter felt long. We grieved hard.
Spring was cold that year, just like this year. It was late March before we bent low, hands on our knees, and peered into the corner garden box. My oldest son Noah and I surveyed the dirt nearly every day in early spring, and when we spotted the fissures slicing jagged beneath layers of desiccated oak leaves, we knew. Something was happening in that cold earth. The first tender shoots surprised us with their hue, not green at all, but tinted pink, like tongues eager for a lick of spring. But as they shot taller from the softening ground, unfurling leaves then stems then buds, the tulips burst into a chorus of color even I didn’t quite expect.
Janice’s memorial tulip garden still thrives, three years later. Last week, bundled into my parka and gloves, I braved the March chill to crouch next to the raised bed. And there they were, tips of pinkish green pushing through the cracked earth. A dusting of snow, fine like powdered sugar, coated each tender leaf. Although the temperature didn’t hint at what was to come, I knew. It won’t be long now before color prevails over steely gray.
All winter long I dream of glory born from grit and gloom. And every year, this ritual of rebirth in my own backyard reminds me that even after the darkest season, hope springs anew.
Edited from the archives. This story also ran last week in the Lincoln Journal Star.