My Mother’s Garden

Caroline Burau
Caroline Burau

Honest-to-goodness phone call from my mom last Monday night:

Hi, Sweetie. I know you’re at work so I’ll be real quick, okay? Okay, I told you about that watercolor class I took the other day because I wanted to learn how to mix colors because I’m not very good at that, remember? Anyway, the teacher puts out all these different pictures of frogs and tells us to paint a frog, and, well, I must have looked and those dumb frogs for twenty minutes. I’m just not a frog person! And finally I just told her, I said “I’m just not a frog person!” I really don’t like them. I almost just walked out of there. And she said “Oh, just give it a try, Audrey, you’re too hard on yourself.” So I finally just picked a stupid frog and I just did it. And so I have this painting of a frog now and I put it in a nice frame from Michaels, and I just wanted to offer it to you before I offered it to your brother, you know, because, I don’t know. Maybe you have somewhere you’d like to put it? It’s so silly, this frog. Your dad said he’d put it in the garage if nobody wants it. Anyway. Are you busy? I should let you go. Can you call me in the morning? You call me in the morning. You come over and look at this frog.

As an emergency dispatcher, I have a habit of breaking down phone conversations into bullet points, then triaging the information for level of emergence. Here’s what I got:

a)      She painted a frog.

b)      She hates frogs.

c)      I’m her favorite child.

my mother's gardenThe next morning, I’m in my mother’s kitchen examining the frog. Mom’s a retired interior designer, so I can see why she hates this frog. She has spent the better part of forty years decorating her turn-of-the-century two-story house with great care and deliberation. The only items of questionable taste she ever displays are probably gifts from me, or to a lesser extent, gifts from my brother David (refer to item c).

But to me, this frog is perfect; it’s the Mona Lisa. I don’t know why or how I’ve lived without this frog for as long as I have. I worship at the Church of the Watercolor Frog.

Literary Goddess Alice Walker (Google her right now if you must, but also, SHAME ON YOU) wrote a short essay called “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” In it, she examines her mother’s life as an African American woman with limited means and unlimited burdens. She explains how her mother still managed to be creative through her quilting and in fostering her children’s creativity. Looking back on it, Walker saw how her mother’s sacrifices inspired her to find her voice as a writer. “In search of my mother’s garden,” Walker wrote, “I found my own.”

Parenting my brother and I didn’t leave my mom much time for her own “garden,” but I do remember hand-stitched school bags and flowers sketched free-hand on my bedroom wall. I also remember the crazy bru-ha-ha she made over my first novella in second grade and every single poem, short story and essay ever after. The only thing I’ve written that she couldn’t entirely get behind was my latest effort, a novel.

“Honey, I like it,” she said earnestly, “But you need to take out some of the effin’ words.”

“You mean the F-words?”

“That’s what I said. I don’t like all the effin’ words. And the sex. There’s an awful lot of sex.”

The frog is grinning, the leaves are heart-shaped, and the frame is neon green. It now lives in my dressing room, above the chest that holds my platform ruby red Dorothy heels (doesn’t everyone have a pair of those?) and amidst photos of family and friends.

And every time I look at it, I’ll remember the following:

a)      Writing is my garden.

b)      My mom hates frogs, but paints them beautifully.

c)      I’m her favorite child.

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Caroline Burau is a freelance writer and author of Sugarfiend and Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat. You can also follow her on Twitter (@carolineburau).

2 Comments on My Mother’s Garden

  1. Awesome essay. I only wish I had fond memories of my mother having a literal or figurative garden. I hope, though, that my own children will love and tolerate me as beautifully as you do your mother.

    PS. I would totally display that frog proudly.

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