It’s one of my earliest memories: kneeling on the soil next to my grandmother in her lush front yard just to the left of her Mary on the half shell, her hair tied back with her ever present babushka. She clips a dead marigold and hands it to me. I look at it, brown and crinkly in my hand, then look up at her in askance.
“Look,” she says, and peels back the dead leaves. Inside, a pocket of seeds spills into my hands. Mary- I called her Babcia, because in her native Polish that is how you say grandmother- dug a hole into the ground next to the area where the marigolds had blossomed and planted the seeds in the dirt. “The flower gives you what you need to make more flowers.”
My mind was blown. My four year old brain didn’t know if things just kind of appeared on Earth or were all bought at the store, but the idea that a crinkly dead marigold was the key to making more marigolds was a kind of magic I wasn’t prepared to handle. I never forgot that afternoon, many summer afternoons spent pouring seeds into a baggie for later. To me, marigolds represented magic. They represented Babcia, nature in its glory, and the eternal nature of life even in death.
This afternoon, I was walking out of the grocery store when my eye caught a pot of marigolds. They aren’t common here in San Diego, so I stopped and looked more closely: “Dia de los Muertos marigolds”, the sign proclaimed. The Day of the Dead. How could I have lived here for so long and not known of the association between marigolds and a holiday honoring our loved ones who have passed on?
This is not a popular holiday in the New England I grew up in, where death comes with the most somber of attendances and sneaking a bag of Dunkin Donuts munchkins into a grandfather’s coffin for the long ride home requires special dispensation from the funeral director. But it’s big here in San Diego, and despite being born out of the same Catholic roots the manifestation couldn’t be any more different: a color explosion replaces the black and white palette, the music is loud and joyous, and marigolds replace funereal white mums. Life continues, even after death.
We’re all marigolds in our own way, all of us leaving something of value to those we’ve left behind, a mark on the world that persists long after we have ceased to. For me, Babcia taught me reverence for all living things, right down to the trees, to be thankful for what they have to give us and to be kind in our stewardship of the earth. Those were the seeds she planted in me.
It’s even more apropos when we think of our pets, who like flowers have such a short season here on Earth, but whose beauty and brightness in life compels us to continue bringing them in the house despite knowing our time with them is all too short. I have so many little blossoms in my heart now, from Taffy and Nuke, Mulan, Emmett, Apollo, Calypso, lessons they have gifted me on patience and love.
The most common question people ask me, in my current work providing home euthanasia services, is “Wow, isn’t this so hard?” And it’s hard to answer, because watching people in pain is hard, and not enjoyable, but the ability to provide them a service that means so much is immensely rewarding. To a one, in their grief, when I ask clients about their pet, they smile through their tears as they tell me, “Neil loved to chase lizards, but he’d never hurt one. So we had a house full of lizards running around.” That sort of thing. My Babcia is now in me, helping me crack the seal of their sadness and shake out the memories and love within, which over time will take root and remain in bloom when the grief has faded to dust.
And that is a beautiful thing.