After the second of my older brothers left for college, Mom and Dad downsized and moved from our late Victorian into a new apartment building. While I don’t recall Mom having much of a green thumb while we were in the house, in the apartment she grew plants.
Maybe it was because we lived on the top floor, in our aerie, that she was inspired to connect, in whatever way she could, with the earth. So alongside the large picture windows that faced south and west, she nurtured a jungle of much-loved greenery, which soon came to include a young gardenia my dad carried home in a small pot one day.
I never thought about why this variety is called August Beauty. The gardenia is an evergreen and blooms its linen-white flowers, which will yellow to the softest touch, in late spring/early summer. Year after year, the gardenia grew steadily, claiming its territory until finally, with my parents back in a house now, Dad moved the plant into the cellar, where it continued to thrive under a grow light.
I always felt sad, upon every visit to the basement, that the reward for having lived a long and fruitful life was that the four-foot, yard-and-a-half-wide gardenia was now relegated to living alone. At 83, Mom lives alone. When she needed surgery to reverse a crippling condition, followed by months of in-patient rehab, my one brother took care of her German Shepherd, and I cared for her plants, filling and refilling the bucket, traipsing into every room, up and down the stairs. But it wasn’t until I stayed to care for her while she recovered fully at home, as I one morning descended into the basement to start a load of laundry, when I realized I’d forgotten – for all those months – to go down these steps with the watering can. I reeled around to see the grow light turned off and a few curled-up yellowed leaves scattered around a ring of discoloration on the cement floor where the large pot had sat for decades.
“Mom!” I shouted up the stairs. “Where’s the gardenia?” It’s dead. I killed it. It felt as if someone had driven a semi through my chest. Sensing my despair, she called back. “Relax. Your brother and nephew carried it outside. Go see it. We pruned it back, so now it will be even healthier.”
So this is why I now think this gardenia is called August Beauty. While it flowers and emanates the sweetest scent with every new summer, it never enters the “autumn” of life, halting at the apex of strength and maturity. And even when alone or forgotten, can reclaim its splendor.