A pot of flowers doesn’t seem like much. It can’t begin to compensate for the loss of rose beds, lemon trees, azaleas just coming into their glory. But at least it’s something to greet my in-laws the day they’ll cram what they can from sixty years of marriage into two tiny rooms in their new retirement home.
My husband’s parents have never much cared about material things; flowers are the one indulgence they allow themselves. A pale yellow Cecil Bruner rose foams over the entry of the Craftsman bungalow they are about to leave behind. Bluebells, daisies, holly—every season’s bounty—grace the coffee table in their living room. Now the vases, furniture, and garden tools have all been donated to charity. My father-in-law, who disapproves of brooding as a foolish waste of time, has banished all misgivings about their imminent uprooting. Still, he confessed to me a few days earlier that he felt a pang as his prized roses started to leaf out. He will want a bit of dirt to fuss over.
At the nursery, I select lemon-yellow ranunculus, blue pansies, white impatiens, and a single periwinkle to spill over the edge of a big ceramic planter the color of cream. The rich black potting soil tumbles from bag to bowl. I carefully ease the flowers out of their plastic cubes and transplant them into the readied dirt, adding soil to fill in the empty spaces. I give the pot a gentle soaking. It looks perfect.
I arrive at the retirement home an hour before the movers and my in-laws are due. Yellow caution tape, the kind used in crime scenes, blocks the path to the 4- by 6-foot concrete pad we charitably call a patio. Perhaps the dismantling of a long life is indeed a crime, but I am too rushed to appreciate the symbolism.
I inquire at the front desk about the obstruction.
“Which unit are your in-laws moving into?” asks the receptionist.
“It’s on the end, overlooking the swamp,” I say.
“We don’t call it a swamp,” she admonishes before explaining that the path is cordoned off due to high tide warnings. “We say ‘marsh.’”
Since my in-laws refer to their fellow residents as “inmates,” I imagine them bristling at the euphemisms, if not the rising waters, about to engulf them. They may be old, but they’re nobody’s fools.
Swamp or marsh, it is clear that no senior citizens will be allowed to wander off into a flood zone, so I resign myself to a treacherous detour. Bracing against the weight of the pot, I gingerly pick my way across soggy hillocks toward the patio. A few more steps and I’ll be home free on the solid concrete.
As I bend to put the pot in place, it slips out of my arms. I watch helplessly, unable to reverse the inexorable crash. Dirt and ceramic shards are everywhere. The flowers I had so tenderly transplanted now lay crushed under two cubic feet of soil.
I pull the biggest shard from the rubble, frantically combing through the dirt with my bare hands. The sweet blue faces of the pansies emerge, and here is the tattered head of the ranunculus. One after another I toss the survivors onto the shard. It is a cool, overcast day; with enough soil clinging to their roots, perhaps the flowers will pull through.
But I cannot yet tend to the shocked transplants. I still have a “Welcome” banner to install, a mess to clean up.
I shake the dirt off my jeans and sneakers as best I can, and struggle to unlock the front door. My in-laws are zealously tidy; their new home, with all the charm of a chain motel, at least makes up in spotlessness what it lacks in character. Or at least it did before I tracked in dirt. Now the traces of my good intentions are ground into the carpet.
I affix the “Welcome” banner to the blank walls. Fishing a crumpled tissue out of my pocket, I blot up the mess as much as possible before finally turning my attention to the drooping plants.
Bare handed, I scoop up some of the soil from the patio into the plastic nursery pots, sweep the rest into the grass with the side of my foot, then head home with my load of distressed flowers and dirt.
There I find an old terra cotta pot, slightly battered, with a patina of dirt and mildew. Filling it almost to the brim with the salvaged potting soil, I carefully transplant each bedraggled flower, once again troweling in dirt around the edges, gently misting off stray soil before giving everything a good drink. The blossoms are wilted from their ordeal, but are starting to perk up a little.
I hope they’ll take root in their new home.
I wrote this four years ago when my in-laws made their big move. They’ve taken root just fine, as has my father-in-law’s garden!