I had been thinking towards the death of my mother for years. How would I grieve? How would our story, sparse as it was, end?
And then it happened: My mother, who I had never met, who I had spoken to once on the phone for under a half-hour six years earlier, died. I heard about her death from cousins who I had also never met and had only briefly chatted with, who had learned of my existence through an ancestry-tracking website. They had shared photos and stories of family I never knew, and now they shared her obituary. I read the public story about her life, noting my absence from the narrative. I braced myself for the grief I thought would overwhelm me: waves of sadness for all the possibilities that now would never be possible.
My front garden was being slowly overwhelmed by Liriope spicata, also known as lilyturf or monkey grass, an invasive non-native perennial that shoots up clusters of fine green blades and weaves a strong, thick net of rhizomatic roots just beneath the surface of the soil. I had planted it long before I knew about the benefits of nurturing native ecologies in my own yard. I spent this past summer hacking away at it, digging up sections of it, considering whether I should poison it, and finally deciding not to. Instead, I covered it with black plastic tarp, trying to smother it, to deny it sunlight and water, and left it there, hoping it would die. But when I pulled up the tarp months later, there were the shoots, whitened from lack of sunlight, but still growing. Still trying to make it through.
Six years ago, I found my birth mother and gathered the courage to call her, trying not to hope too much, but hoping anyway. When she answered the phone, I was shocked by how old she sounded, how gruff, how afraid. I ended up spending most of that call trying to calm the fears I thought I could hear in her voice, fears I tried my best to name: Fear of being exposed? Fear of having her long-held secret — me, the baby she had put up for adoption 51 years ago, and whatever relationship she’d had that went along with the fact of me — revealed? Fear that I would demand something from her? Fear that I would be angry with her? Fear that I’d had a horrible life? …
We spoke for maybe twenty minutes. I let her know who I was (I had practiced the phrasing of this reveal for a week before calling). She asked if I’d had a happy life. I told her that I had. I had a beautiful family, a loving husband and smart and funny daughters. She said she had prayed for me every day. And then we hung up.
I hoped for a little while that she would contact me again. I thought fleetingly of sending her a card with a photo of us, her daughter and granddaughters. But neither of us ever reached out again.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to remember and understand our relationships with the plants and animals all around us. She begins by telling the story of Hierochloe odorata, also known as wiingaashk or sweetgrass. This vanilla-scented grass grows in bundles of blades in sunny meadows and “along disturbed edges.” It has been cherished and gathered by many Indigenous nations for generation upon generation. Its sweet-smelling leaves are braided, woven into baskets, honored as medicine and friend. It is said to be the flowing hair of Mother Earth. When left alone in a meadow, it can grow so thickly that it chokes itself out of existence. But, when it is harvested respectfully, with gratitude and care by the women who will braid it, it will flourish and grow. Picking the grass helps it to grow.
When I heard that my mother had died, I waited for the grief to come. I spent a week both empty of and overwhelmed by feelings I could not name. I cried straight through a discussion of my friend’s recently published book about her own grief, about discovering her mother more fully in her death than she had in life. I called another friend and let her stories about her mother-grief wash over me. I tried to write, over and over again, about what I might be feeling. Nestling my grief amongst theirs, I realized that at least part of the grief I was feeling was over my lack of it. I could not grieve for this woman I didn’t know. I could not grieve for an absence.
Last summer I also dug up my whole front lawn to try to nurture a native garden there instead. Yesterday, after a good, soaking rain I plucked out some remaining spears of grass that were crowding out the Viola sororia, common wood violet, that, given its newfound opportunity for space and sunlight, is flourishing, sprouting profuse bouquets of heart-shaped leaves and lovely, delicate purple blossoms. When my yard was covered by lawn, these little flowers were weeds that would get mowed away before they had the chance to grow. Now that I’ve dug up all the grass, they are, literally, blossoming.
My great great grandparents lived in Shinrone, Ireland. I can see their village church in the photos posted by a distant cousin in a Facebook group created for the purpose of sharing stories and pictures of this sprawling family which my DNA says I am a member of. This week I connected with a third cousin whose mother, now 90, knew my mother when they were girls growing up eight blocks apart in the Bronx. Her mother retells a story of borrowing from my mother a whole outfit to wear on a date — brown skirt, brown blouse, and brown shoes — and her delight at having something different to wear, even if it “wasn’t all that nice.” And I can imagine my mother as a girl who was generous enough to lend a whole outfit to her second cousin for a date.
Over the lilyturf, I’ve now laid two layers of cardboard and several inches of mulch. I’ve planted a hay-scented fern nearby. My hope is that, over time, the Liriope’s roots will become soil, and the fern will naturalize, taking its place. Every night, when I pull into the driveway after work, I wander around my garden, searching for and plucking out the shoots that find their way through or around the barriers I’ve erected. I marvel at their tenacity as I tear them out by the roots.