I knew my mother was dying when she told me to dig up her rose. For the last year of her life, widowed and living on her own in a ranch house on a Southern California hillside, she’d suggest it every time I’d visit. I kept saying no. We both knew what it meant, and I didn’t want it. But during one trip in March, she hobbled on a cane over to the garage, where, with her free hand, she dragged out a spade. She left me no choice but to dig.
“Careful around the roots,” she said. “Dig it far enough away from the crown. And be sure to take enough soil for it, so it’ll take.” She made sure I wrapped it well, first in burlap and then a sheet of plastic, so it would weather the flight back to San Francisco.
A couple of months later, my mother died. She collapsed while pruning her roses, red-handled secateurs in her hands.
For the past seven years, I have tended to her rose in my garden. But it’s not just hers.
This rose — which began its life under my immigrant grandparents in Chicago’s Greek community — has lived through three generations of women in our family, in a half-dozen gardens. And it’s about to bloom another year in mine.
America has a long tradition of heirloom plants kept alive and passed through generations.
“In pioneer families moving to the West, and families that came to the early colonies, the things they brought with them are roses that now go back 100 to 150 years that have been maintained in a family,” Gregg Lowery, curator of the Friends of Vintage Roses, told me.
While roses are not listed on the Mayflower bill of lading, as early as 1621, the pilgrims planted roses at Plymouth Plantation. Among these were “reds, whites and damasks,” as John Carver, their first governor, wrote in his journal. Some of these were found in the wild, others possibly brought as slips, cuttings and even roots from England. Wyck, a historic house in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, has what some consider to be “the oldest rose garden in original plan in America,” as its website describes it. Jane Bowne Haines, who lived at Wyck, introduced roses to the garden in 1824. The “Bella Donna” and “Beautiful Woman” roses were among those passed on through generations.
Later immigrants who flooded into our country brought the roses they treasured along with them.
Our rose started here. The patriarch of my family, Papou, came from Greece around 1910 as a boy with nothing — certainly not a flower. For work, he shined shoes on street corners. By the time he was in his 30s, he and my grandmother, Demetra, managed to buy a house on the South Side. One measure of how they had made it was that she got to tend a garden. She especially loved her roses.
When my grandparents died, six months apart, my parents dug out only one rose from their garden. They planted it back at home in a suburb.
Why my parents chose to preserve that rose is a mystery. It was different from the ones my mom liked, fussy hybrid teas. Gardeners grow hybrid teas for the tight-scrolled bloom that comes on a long stiff neck. But this rose has just a single yellow ring of five petals and a yellow stamen. It is a little scruffy thing, and she planted it in the rock garden.
When my parents retired and moved from Chicago to California, this little rose was the only plant they brought with them. Whenever we worked together out in her garden my mother would tell me: “One of these days you’re going to be the one who takes care of this rose.”
There is a lot growing in our San Francisco garden. We have a Monterey cypress, angel’s trumpet, lavender and catmint. There is clematis, luculia and daphnes. And now at the top of four terraces, there is this rose. When it got to San Francisco, I mixed our soil with my mother’s, and the rose took immediately. It has a prime spot in the sun.
One day, I’ll pass it on. Just as it did in my mother’s garden, the parent rose plant suckered in ours. It threw off a new shrub that grows near it, forming a thicket. So now I have two. My daughter and son don’t garden, but they will learn.
All winter, the rose has been twiggy, with bare canes. But now, sap flows through it again, and its shoots lengthen, and it sends out new ones. Leaves bud, and break open.
The budding means that soon I’ll be at my favorite church service, the Easter Vigil. It is a darker, quieter celebration than Easter Sunday’s. But they are both about flowers.
Every year for the vigil, on Saturday, the night before Easter, the windows of our church are covered in black shrouds. In the dark church, we sit in pews and hold unlit candles. It is a time to watch and wait for light that, in Christian tradition, is the rising of Christ from the dead. From a kindled Easter fire at the front of the church, the minister blesses the Paschal candle, then lights it — the “Light of Christ.” The minister touches her candle to a congregant’s in the front pew. That person in turn lights her neighbor’s, and soon a sea of light waves back through the church nave.
When all the candles are lit, the church attendants throw the shrouds off the cross at the altar, draw them off the unlit candles in wall sconces, and peel them from the windows. There in window boxes are daffodils, tulips, freesias, bouquets of spring flowers. In that rebirth, Easter begins, and back in my garden our rose blooms again.