Another 37, Day Two
“Kids, wake up. I have a great idea.”
My dad was a morning person, and he just didn’t get that there was never a good reason for waking up. Sometimes there was a good reason for being up, but that came later. Somehow he expected us to be enthusiastic. My brother was better at that than I was, but not much. My mother was, if anything, worse, which I loved because she understood. But she wasn’t there, this particular morning. She couldn’t have been, because this was about her.
Once we were awake enough to care, dad explained what we were doing. It was a good idea. A really good idea. Perfect. That’s how we ended up on the strip of tattered grass in the median on the highway just outside of Pier 1 Imports. And along other weathered, neglected patches of greenery usually only traversed by kids jaywalking across traffic, or work men in orange vests and just the wrong among of stubble on their perpetually surly faces. But the patch outside of Pier 1 was the best. A diamond mine.
And we were searching for diamonds, rare and precious, uncut and indistinguishable from common rocks unless your eye was equally rare, and you knew how to spot that which was precious. We were spice hunters, sailing to the places on the map marked with dragons, looking for the nutmeg trees but harvesting only the mace. We were in the wilds of the South Jersey suburbs, and we were searching for Queen Anne’s Lace.
“What’s Queen Anne’s Lace?” I remember asking my father once.
“It’s a weed,” he told me, “but don’t tell your mother.”
“Maya, what’s Queen Anne’s Lace?” I asked her. I called her Maya, because I liked to play with words, and because “mom” and “mommy” were too prosaic, and she was too special to my child’s eyes.
“A flower,” she said, in that far off voice she sometimes had, the voice sprinkled with faerie dust. “The most beautiful flower in the world.”
Maya could talk about flowers for hours. With the voice of an expert, and the passion of a poet describing her children. Whenever spring bloomed she spoke of nasturtiums and hydrangea and bleeding hearts, how they grew, what they needed, their personality quirks and their deepest fears. She had a story about every one.
“Impatiens are the most dramatic of all flowers,” she used to say. “When you haven’t watered them they sag and droop,” here, she would sag and droop her arms down herself. “’Water us!’ they say. ‘Water us or we’ll die!’ And then when you water them they spring up and spread out, and say, ‘Look at us! Aren’t we beautiful?’”
I never understood beauty. Not really. I understood ideas, words, the wild, frayed colors and sounds at the edges of abstract imagination. But not pure beauty, purely for it’s own sake. Sometimes I’m staggered by it, but even then I over think it. I try to tell a story, but sometimes you don’t need a story. Sometimes beauty is wine, and a story just waters it down.
Both of my parents were artists, but for my dad beauty did something. The most passionate I ever saw him was talking about some scientific breakthrough, or some revelation about how things worked. For Maya beauty just was. Powerful and intense and meaningless in the most meaningful of ways. I never understood beauty, all by itself, and that means I never understood perfection. I never touched it. But she did. To her it was everywhere.
“Do you think we have enough?” Dad asked. We looked in the back of the Suburban. It was full of clods of dirt pulled up from the ground, a dozen flowers and their accompanying roots. It was a hot day, and my brother and I were both dirty and sweaty, and neither of us had realized we were going to have to give up our Saturday for this. We looked at each other. We looked at the flowers. We both agreed; we didn’t have enough. Time to get back to work.
You couldn’t buy Queen Anne’s Lace. Of course you couldn’t. It was a weed. It grew wherever no one paid anyone pluck it up and make things more presentable. Did that make it more beautiful? I heard once that most people who visit the Louvre only look at the Mona Lisa and then leave. What other works of transcendental beauty line those halls, that everyone walks past? And what might be growing in the cracks between the pavement just outside, torn up by the gardener every morning, that could be just as beautiful?
As a teacher, Maya would sometimes get into arguments with other teachers about some of the students. The bad kids. The ones who spoke too often and too harshly, just so someone would see them. Maya loved them, not just because she could love everyone, but individually. For who they were. For the way they flowered. Other people saw weeds; she saw Queen Anne’s Lace.
Her face when she came home to see the flowerbed full of white flowers was as wondrous as we could hope for. More wondrous than you are probably imagining, because she had no filters in moments like this. She was always everyone’s favorite person on Christmas Morning, because you could hand her a present, watch her open a bottle of the kind of $4 perfume little kids think makes a fantastic gift, and watch her explode into joy. She might not like the present, she might never use it, but her joy was utterly genuine, because the moment was genuine. Because the act of giving her a gift filled it with magic, to her. You could hand her a package of weeds, but she always opened Queen Anne’s Lace.
She ran up and hugged us and exclaimed and bubbled over with joy. It must have been Mother’s Day, because her birthday would have been too cold. But I don’t remember what day it was. I don’t remember the details. I just remember her face. I’ll always remember her face.
I have no idea if all of this is entirely too sentimental. But sometimes you have to not care about that kind of thing. Sometimes you just have to blossom when someone waters you, and declare to all of the world that you are beautiful. Sometimes you have to tell the woman who raised you that she’s amazing, that she taught you about beauty and love and art. And about how, sometimes, there aren’t any weeds. There’s only Queen Anne’s Lace.