The mission at Lancaster County's legendary Shady Maple shopping bazaar, as far as my husband and I had imagined, was pretty cut-and-dry: Find a bunch of vegetable and herb plants. Buy them. Take them home. Plant them. The last thing on my mind was a long-dead woman named Panagiota.
But something about our tagalongs didn't seem right. Our sons were atypically distracted as I stockpiled Hungarian wax peppers, grape tomatoes, jalapeños, and basil plants into a shopping cart. The 5-year-old and his 4-year-old sidekick were obsessed with picking out flowers. And the littler one, in particular, seemed as though an invisible pied piper had taken control of his mind.
On any other day this kid would tell you his favorite color is lellow. And let me tell you — there were plenty of pretty yellow flowers among the smorgasbord of spring blooms in this makeshift mart staffed by a woman in Amish garb. But lellow, for some peculiar reason, wasn't cutting it for this kid. I wouldn't learn until Memorial Day exactly why.
"Daddy," he agitated. "I want orange."
My 6-foot-tall spouse scanned the place but saw no such color poking from the sea of greenery. I, meanwhile, had my head buried in tangles of vegetable plants, oblivious to this side drama unfolding between father and sons.
The little guy, my husband would later explain to me, was undaunted. He seemed to know where to find what he was looking for. He led his dad to a hard-to-see nook at the end of an aisle where, lo and behold, there it was: a patch of single-bloom flowers with orange petals that looked like fireworks sprouting from green stems with fat green leaves. The boy smiled proudly.
"Oh!" Daddy exclaimed. "Orange!"
He grabbed two, and his older brother claimed pink and yellow ones. All four plants got thrown into the shopping cart and we went home to suburban Philly.
Two days later, on the very Memorial Day holiday that brings many of our deceased close to mind, I found myself sitting on the back patio, slumped over an iPhone in search of online flower gardening tips. The two dozen tomatoes, peppers, cukes, and herbs at my feet weren't the concern; it was those flowers the boys had insisted on bringing home. How do I not kill those babies?
My mom, a Greek farmer who'd immigrated here from an agrarian village, had spent the early years of my childhood growing lush string beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers on the side of our house along the Upper Darby trolley tracks. She also grew incredible rosebushes and, from time to time, flowers from seed. What did I know? I figured this was all as easy as turning on a garden hose.
I didn't realize until after she died, when I was 26, that it is far easier to kill plants than to grow them. That my mother had skills. A gift, even. I've spent years learning just a sliver of the craftsmanship she'd developed in southern Greece's olive-farming culture before leaving that difficult life for a shot in America.
By now, I'm proud to say: Veggies? Check. But flowers? I still murder them.
So imagine my surprise as I went searching the web for flower wisdom a few days ago.
My boys were making their usual ruckus of jumping puddles and chasing bubbles in the driveway. The neighbors were holding a Memorial Day picnic. And I was doing a Google search of what the pokey little flower label calls Magellan Mix. They're pretty and, well, oddly familiar to me.
Google informs me they are zinnias.
All of a sudden, I remember. The memory flashes before me like a sunburst. There was a year that my mom planted zinnias from seed in front of our house. Zinnias, yes. They were magical and beautiful and such a sea of color amid the gray concrete of life along the tracks. Maybe I was 10? Maybe younger?
It struck me that this quite possibly was a message from my mother to us all. Somehow, my boys had found her flowers at Shady Maple — and insisted that they join the vegetable garden that was, in my own mind, an annual tribute to that woman named Panagiota.
As I got to planting it all a short time later, I couldn't help but think about the soil and all of its great mysteries. The earth that buries our dead also brings new things to life. And that — as I am reminded every time the days grow long — is the true miracle of spring.