This blog feels like no other I’ve written, not least because I have no idea how to start it. So, let’s start abruptly. And bluntly. Because no matter how tactless that might sound, at least it gets me right to the heart of the matter.
The thing is, my mother died last summer. Her had health deteriorated quickly in the last two years or so: on top of rheumatism, she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the previous autumn. Nevertheless, her death was a shock to us all. It left us bewildered and paralysed, trying to make sense of what had happened.
I’ve been lucky, for this is the first time I’ve encountered death close at hand. This is the first time I’ve felt the kind of howling pain that comes with mourning, or reprogrammed my entire existence just because someone I loved is not coming back.
I’ve rediscovered things about life. Like, family and friends matter. Writing matters. Or that strong Italian espresso coffee helps. And long walks with dogs.
Also, I’ve thought about Mother. What she was like. Because people tell me that little by little her voice and her gestures will fade away from my mind. And I don’t want that to happen.
I’ve thought about her gardens, because Mother, a biology teacher, loved gardening and nature. I remember walking with her in the woods, and she knew the names of all the plants and flowers and animals – and their Latin names too – and she would continually point them out to me. This was something that annoyed me profusely when I was a teenager, but now I’d give anything if I could walk with her again. This time, I would listen to her.
There was nothing petty or cute in Mother’s gardening. Instead of trimming roses or watering geraniums or planting seeds in lovely little pots, she cut trees with her chainsaw (yes, obviously, she had her very own chainsaw!) in her forest hideaway in Finland and dug holes and shaped the landscape, just like the landscape architect she was. Yes, she had gardens in Finland and in Italy, and here in Tuscany her finest work was a hundred-and-fifty-metre long hedge called Viburnum, which she dug, planted and watered all by herself: a delicate-looking woman toiling tirelessly under the unyielding Tuscan sun.
So strange was the sight of a petite woman of her generation digging in rural Tuscany that many people stopped to watch her toiling in open-mouthed astonishment. After staring at her for a while, they all asked the same question.
‘So,’ they said, scratching their heads. ‘You’re… the gardener of this family?’
We used to tease her about that. ‘So,’ we asked her, ‘you’re the gardener of this family?’
But it is only now when Mother is no longer with us that I understand how right these people were. Because she truly was the gardener of our family.
But the thing is, her garden wasn’t special because of that long hedge. Or because of all her beautiful flowers and plants.
No, her garden was special because it was made of people. It was special because there was so much love and tenderness in it.
We all belonged to her garden. My sister and my brother and my father. My son and my husband. Our relatives and our friends. The friends of our relatives. The relatives of our friends.
Anyone and everyone could become a part of Mother’s garden. All you had to do was to enter, and she’d help you.
The gates of her garden were always open.
Her garden extended all the way to Kenya, as she funded the schooling of a talented village schoolboy, who often came to Finland in the summer to stay with us. Later on, he became a medical doctor. (Here’s to you, Donald!)
It was that extraordinary and overwhelming charitable aspect of my mother’s gardening that made her who she was. It was also why I – then in my twenties and not daring to write down the first lines of my first novel – thought that instead of becoming a novelist I’d become an aid worker and work in a refugee camp or a war-torn region. Because her example had shown me that helping other people is never a waste of time. Gardening is never a waste of time.
And it is also why some twenty years later I started to write a “feel-good” fantasy series about an angel who becomes a human being and dedicates his human life to cure the people he meets. Mother loved the idea of Angel Aid – though already feeble, her eyes sparkled when she listened to my stories about a little, angel-run charity in a slow-moving Tuscan village. But by a twist of fate she passed away before the first manuscript version was ready. She never got to see those stories on paper.
Three months after Mother died, Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the USA. A wave of populism and intolerance is sweeping across Western societies, as Britain has already opted out of the European Union and extremist parties are gaining popularity in European countries. The catchphrase is to build walls and close doors, something which Mother – a gardener through and through – would have abhorred.
But I can’t help thinking that as long as there are people like Mother, curing and caring and offering us a safe haven, we can’t get badly lost. True, one day they too will pass away, as my mother did. But if we keep tending their gardens, their memory will never die.