SHE HAD ASKED  for no flowers at her funeral, likely fearing her gardener friends would struggle to outdo themselves, enveloping the church in combative perfumes.

But a man brought in irises, an immense basket of them, and set them down near the altar.

Simple, purple, everyday irises—not the exotic black, red, yellow, or white species she nurtured in her Riverdale Iris Gardens formal beds. Just the violet backyard plants she gave away like cups of coffee, now growing alongside my deck, alongside my mother’s pool, clustered near my sister’s driveway entrance. Not a noble plant, but just the commonest of garden varieties.

And they undid us. There was an audible gasp in the congregation. A few people began to cry.

I remembered Zula happy, hatless, and grubby in her garden mud. She was short and round, her feet so tiny they required special shoes. She wore exotic clothes, all wrong for her height and figure. She kept her oldest, artist, most antique clothes in a shed smack in the middle of her garden, a shed we called her “costume house.” We girls raided it regularly for Halloween and school plays. She was as generous as rain.

When I talked to Zula, I often did it standing ankle deep in mulch, facing her backside while she dug up and split bulbs. Gardening wisdom floated around her like pollen. She took her adjectives, her similes, her metaphors from her growing things. From Zula, I learned that imperfection was just fine: messy clumps of bulbs, lilies that could not be contained.

You strive for the orderly rows, the coordinated colors. But when you fail, you do not despair. You still pause to lift a fallen bloom of nearby iris, hold it to the sunlight in your muddy hand with cracked nails filled with dirt, and exclaim, “Isn’t this beautiful!” And go find someone to share it with, on up at the house.


A version of this appeared in The Garden Letter. Another version appeared in Midwest Home & Garden, June/July, 2002.

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