The iris is the state flower of Tennessee, where I grew up. The classic color is purple, but my mother planted some unusual, beautiful ones on our farm. In addition to purple, there were peach-colored, yellow, and white ones. They were much bigger than the usual irises, almost like the orchid corsages you would wear to church on Easter Sunday.
I don’t remember where she got the starts for them. Irises grow from roots called rhizomes that spread out as they grow. When they get too thick, they stop blooming, so you have to thin them out periodically. Someone gave Mother the starts and she planted them in the yard beside the house. They grew and grew, blooming copiously every year. She thinned them and gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted the starts at her house.
Years later the irises at Sherrie’s house got too thick, so she thinned them and gave starts to our niece Judy. Judy planted them at her house, and took starts with her again when she moved. Judy also planted some at her mother’s house. She sent me a photo last week, the one you see above–the irises are still blooming, still growing, years after my mother passed away. The sight of that iris took me back to the rows of flowers blooming bravely in the back yard, so top-heavy that the wind or rain would easily beat them to the ground. They bloomed in April in Tennessee, but are just opening now in cooler northern climes.
Mother loved her flowers, and irises always remind me of her. Happy Mothers Day to all.
My mother was always fond of flowers. Wherever we lived, she planted bulbs and weeded flower beds. Our yard was never elaborate or manicured, and she certainly never read gardening books or drew plans. But I remember four o’clocks which bloomed in the evening shade, and beds of zinnias and marigolds scorching in the summer sun. She planted tiger lilies on the edges of the back yard at the house we lived in when I was in elementary school and phlox clinging to a rocky outcropping by the kitchen door.
When we moved to the farm someone gave Mother several varieties of irises. Some of them were the classic purple ones which are the state flower of Tennessee. Others had huge blossoms in unusual colors, including peach. They were the last of the bulbs to bloom each spring (technically speaking, they grew from rhizomes) and gave us a week or two of glory before the heat set in. In order to keep them blooming year after year, the rhizomes have to be thinned out. Mother gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted them in her yard. As recently as three years ago they were still blossoming.
I’m not sure how some of Sherrie’s rhizomes got to my niece Judy in Ohio, but they did. The photo is of a peach-colored iris blooming in Judy’s yard this spring. She has two plants that still come up and flower, descendants of the original stock that was planted in the late ’60s on our farm. Out of those roots….maybe they will last long enough to provide rhizomes for another generation, another yard, more springs.
Here are some more things I remember about Mother. As I wrote last week, I wrote these in a notebook as I rode the Metro North train home from Manhattan a few years ago. It was a sad time in my life, and writing seemed to help. I only wish I had written more while the memories were fresher.
14. When we lived in town, Mother had flower beds with four o’clocks in back of the house. The blossoms only opened in the evening and closed at dark. She had huge beds of tiger lilies in the back yard in summer, and every color of iris in the spring.
15. She kept every drawing or story I ever gave her. She kept every letter my brother wrote from the Air Force. She kept the ugly pottery owl with a flat head that I made in 7th grade art class. She kept boxes and boxes of photos and an old family Bible.
16. She liked to talk on the phone a lot. When she lived in town she spent hours on the phone every day, it seemed. It was a sad day when my sister Glenda had to take the phone out of Mother’s room in the nursing home. Mother couldn’t hear it anymore and had forgotten how to dial. She and Aunt Elsie always talked every day until Mother moved to be near Glenda. Then they talked once a week, until Mother couldn’t hear anymore. That was one of the first things the strokes took away.
17. Mother was a good, old-fashioned Southern cook: fried chicken, boiled country ham, vegetables cooked down with fat meat, creamed corn (a little bit stuck to the skillet, the way Daddy liked it), stewed tomatoes, cornbread. Her biscuits were not reliable. She made wonderful pies: chocolate (no meringue, because my sister Juanita didn’t like it), chess, pecan. Cakes were chancy things and might or might not fall. She also liked recipes from her Sunday school class members or Good Housekeeping, especially Jello salads. When Daddy had his first heart attack her cooking changed completely. No more sausage and biscuits or fatback—only as a treat.
I was thinking of Mother’s fried chicken recipe this week. It turns out her method was just featured in Southern Living recently, and they increased the minutes you cook it because chickens are so much larger now. Her recipe is in this blog’s archives.
Enjoy the week, and enjoy Memorial Day weekend!