Reliving the agony and ecstasy of spring

By From page A7 | April 20, 2014

* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column has been slightly revised since it first ran in April 1998.

Sometimes spring is too much for me. It makes me think of my mother, a person who was very clear about her favorite things.

Spring was her favorite season, just as blue was her favorite color, the cardinal her favorite bird and the Yankees her favorite team. Her car had to be a Buick, breakfast a soft-boiled egg, and at Christmas she sang loudest to “Away in the Manger.”

She especially enjoyed spring flowers, and although I was never much for learning their names, I knew the ones she liked, and I hear poetry in their syllables: magnolia, forsythia and lilac. They were Eastern flowers, but I see them here in lesser profusion, the magnolias on Fillmore Street near my home, forsythia by Putah Creek, and one potent-scented purple lilac tucked among California natives behind a house in Village Homes.

When I was a child, I was the member of the family who didn’t notice such things. I liked pulling the heads off pussy willows as much as the next kid, and I tugged for omens in daisies well into my teens, but I was never one to sit and admire “the view.”

That’s why my parents gave me the bedroom without one.

They were building a country house in the Berkshire Mountains of New York. The land had been purchased cheaply when I was 5 years old, and my family traveled there every other weekend so my father could work on the house, building it by himself. Progress was slow, and for most of my childhood “Shoestring” had just four rooms: three bedrooms and a kitchen.

From two of the bedrooms, you looked across a rolling slope, past the forsythia my mother planted in the lawn, to a hillside with black and white cows grazing peacefully half a mile away. Beyond that hill lay others, in a progression of gentle slopes like a fan, growing more and more purple as they faded into the distance. I didn’t notice the color at the time.

Instead, on spring afternoons, while my mother, my father, and my brother stared dreamily at the hills, I raced around looking for the right bucket for my next tadpole hunt.

Even though I could hardly stand it when my brother bested me at anything, I had to agree that he deserved the room with a view.

But three weeks ago, when I saw forsythia at the Farmers Market, they made me cry. And I remember how every year my mother would run into the house and say, “The first bud opened!” and I’d know she was talking about a forsythia stalk that would transform almost overnight from a thin reed pipe to a full-bloomed clarinet of brilliant yellow.

Nowadays I watch for signs of spring like she did, observing the overture of grasses, the first movement of budding almonds, waiting for the crescendo of tulips and daffodils and iris on big strong stalks. And I head for the river, to kayak, but also to drink my fill of California poppies, and to watch for baby ducks, poking their heads among the reeds with their mothers.

If I ever move from Davis, it will be because it lacks a hillside and a view.

To my mother, this passion for beauty came naturally. To me, it came late, as marriage and children did. It started before her death 10 years ago, but grew more quickly after she was gone.

Now, as each spring comes, I know she would want me to enjoy the season without letting the missing of her spoil it somehow.

I try.

I am most successful in places that were different from hers, the Pacific coast, the river, the almond orchards. But when her favorite flowers fill every corner of Davis like music in a church, it’s too much for me, because I want so badly to share it with her.

My mother said there were too many poets to have a favorite, just as there were too many flowers to like one best, but she admired T.S. Eliot, who wrote that “April is the cruelest month.”

This morning I open her old poetry book, find the poem, check the lines that follow. Eliot wrote that April mixes “memory and desire.”

Yes. Oh yes. How I wish she could be here with me.

Sometimes spring is just too hard.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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