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Children are like roses, my mom explained to know-it-all me

As a smart-mouthed preteen, I scoffed at our family’s resourceful gardener, and she answered with love.

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Funny how the simplest act can trigger a long-dormant memory.

I was emptying coffee grounds the other day and remembered reading that they were particularly effective at controlling insects and giving roses the nitrogen they need to blossom.

And then it happened.

My long-dead mother, front and center in my mind. Bending over her beloved Jackson & Perkins roses, bag of dried coffee grounds in hand, wearing an out-of-date, I Love Lucy-style dress with dancing jelly beans on a background of polished black cotton. She tenderly spread the grounds around the roots, patting them down to make sure each and every bush had its fair share.


And then, as if to bring the picture into cruel focus, there was the memory of my smart-mouthed preteen self, mercilessly mocking her for what I perceived as foolishness. Sometimes she’d add finely crushed eggshells to the mix, eliciting a whole new level of sarcasm regarding turning our backyard into a garbage dump.

Ours was a modest neighborhood at best, and I was so acutely aware of being poor that it was second nature to call her cheap or crazy — or both — for not buying fertilizer from the store. I taunted her for her innocent actions as only an insensitive 12-year-old know-it-all can, completely forgetting (or, in all honesty, choosing to forget) how important flowers were to her.

She grew up in an overcrowded Brooklyn tenement, far away from the fertile fields her father had once owned. As the eldest son, he left everything behind in hopes of rescuing his family in Italy from desperate poverty. Years later, when he was able to purchase a tiny house, he cultivated a little garden of wildflowers. He and my mother shared the Sicilian love of the land, even if the “land” was a minuscule patch of color in a cement-and-tarpaper world.


My mom seemed impervious to my criticism. She smiled at my ill-informed comments, not berating me (as, certainly, I would have done to my own daughters). She ignored the jeering and proceeded without hesitation, as though I had complimented, not belittled, her.

“Every living thing needs a little tender care,” she said softly. “Roses are a lot like children. Their thorns may make it difficult for anyone to get near them, but if you give them what you know they need, they’ll thrive and grow and reward you in ways you never thought possible.” Her words shamed me into silence.

“There!” she continued, dusting the dirt and grounds off her hands before she went inside. “Let’s see if they like Chock Full o’Nuts!”

They always did. Those rosebushes were the single most beautiful thing about our dark little house. Blooming by the side of the garage in a glorious riot of color year after year, they welcomed us home from May until December, defying cold and winter gloom.

On warm summer nights when the breeze was just right, their heady fragrance wafted into my room. It was a moment right out of the storybooks my mother read aloud to me — books about children who lived in rose-covered cottages nestled in cozy, verdant glens, under an indigo sky dotted with twinkling stars. I lived for those books and their world of watercolor perfection. It was as far removed as it could possibly be from my tiny flamingo-pink room overlooking the noisy traffic of Northern Boulevard.


With a plastic bag of coffee grounds in my hand, I look at my own anemic rosebushes. For 30 years, I’ve never been able to duplicate my mother’s talent in making roses bloom. And God knows I’ve tried. From organic mulch to spraying for aphids to applying fertilizer (store-bought, of course). Now, holding the coffee grounds, I see my mother before me — young, smiling. Forgiving.

And I spread the grounds lovingly around each root. And silently thank her.

Clare Lowell is a freelance writer and novelist in Huntington, New York. Send comments to connections@globe.com.