Welcoming The New Or Honoring The Departed
Today is my beautiful granddaughter’s sixth birthday. As I prepare a little after-school party for her, I’m remembering the day she arrived. It’s still deeply moving to recall her birth, which happened at her home, surrounded by loving family and friends. Just a few months previously, some of the same people had honored the death of my mother, also at home. Home births and home deaths have become rare in this country, yet witnessing someone being birthed or someone walking on are among life’s most profound experiences. Certainly there are situations in which either birth or death should occur in a hospital, yet removing both from our direct experiences can create a sense of detachment, an absence of knowledge that makes these universal human experiences seem foreign. Obviously both birth and death can be messy, scary processes, but they can also be so beautiful, so REAL, so human.
When I remember Kate tending and bathing our newest baby, I also remember how she and I bathed Mom and dressed her in her favorite fleece nightie for her last departure from home, so shortly before my granddaughter was born. In our part of the world, that loving service isn’t often carried out at home, by family, but in many places, it’s an important rite of passage woven with meaningful rituals. Surely something is missing from a life that does not willingly include the earthy realities of birth and death. Until America got brainwashed by the funeral industry, women traditionally handled the tasks of bathing and clothing, of vigil and celebration and mourning. Both the medical industry and the funeral industry promoted the view that both birth and death were too perilous to be managed by amateur women, and that tradition was largely lost.
Beautiful Arrivals & Departures
Though many people are put off the idea of home births because of the messy aftermath (definitely understandable), laundry is not really all that daunting if family and friends are around to help. Obviously it’s a lot harder if women don’t have that warm community support but helping each other build a web of strong connections is part of being an elder (or so I like to think). Being willing to be part of such a web is a great gift, one which brings even greater rewards. I’ve heard many people say that they wouldn’t be comfortable at a birth or death because they are worried that they might not know what to do or just how to do it. It’s true that a tiny baby seems so fragile and mysterious, while the newly dead are still warm yet so clearly empty of life. Though natural and normal and part of every life on the planet, both states can certainly be intimidating to the inexperienced. In reality, bathing and dressing are simple, peaceful tasks that are both earthy and sacred.
Our family often celebrates births and deaths by planting something. For beloved critters, I like rosemary for remembrance, choosing hardy, enduring varieties like Arp, which can live for decades. For people, I may plant a favorite tree; my dad and Bud both loved Japanese maples, so that was an obvious choice. Sadly, neither original planting flourished, which is a reminder to pick something hardy and well suited to the site, because losing a memorial tree can feel doubly sad. After those trees were lost to verticillium, we planted a beautiful Purple Prince crabapple for Bud and a shapely weeping sequoia for my Dad. Where there isn’t much room, we’ve chosen hardy shrubs; for my mom, we planted a winter flowering witch hazel, Hamamalis x intermedia Pallida, with soft yellow flowers that smell delicious on winter days. We’ve planted memorial roses as well as camellias, rhododendrons, and even a splendid Midwinter Fire twiggy dogwood, now the size of a small tree.
Celebrating Arrivals With Sweetness
It’s fun to celebrate birthdays with plants as well. I’ve giving my granddaughter some snowdrops to add to her growing garden. Long lived bulbs like this can persist for decades, even centuries, so they may spread and create a legacy of beauty over time. We also honors births by planting something fragrant, or a plant with powerful, positive association. My son, her dad, was also a January baby and everywhere we’ve lived, I’ve planted a native Scouler willow, which was blooming when he arrived. For my grandson, I planted Cotinus x Grace, a superb smoke bush with fantastic color from early spring into late fall, as well as a lovely coral orange rose from the grocery store. These little roses often prove very hardy when planted in the garden. His has been in the ground for eight years and is now about three feet high and wide. He also has a pear tree planted along with his placenta in the backyard of his own home, a tradition meant to make sure that children will always find their way back home. His sister’s birth was honored with a lovely, ruffled pink camellia in the front yard, which is just starting to bloom after the cold snap.
My long-time gardening group, the Friday Tidies, has been developing and caring for the gardens at our local library for over twenty years. During that time, several of our number have walked on and each time, we planted something that would remind us of our dear departed. We’ve often discussed what kinds of plants we would each prefer when our times come, and many plumped for crabapples, especially the newer disease-resistant varieties. Our library gardens now include Centennial, a very handsome small tree with truly tasty, sweet-tart fruit, as well as Golden Raindrops, a cut-leaf form with small but profuse bright yellow fruit that lingers well into winter. To commemorate a lost baby, we planted Tina (Malus toringo ssp. sargentii Tina), a lovely small tree with a perfect canopy and daintily spreading branches. AKA Sargent Tina, this shrub-like tree tops out at around 6-8 feet if grafted and 8-12 feet on its own roots, offering the usual rosy bud and white flowers as well as red fruit and warm fall color. For myself, I’d like a healthy, compact crabapple, to provide for pollinators and birds and add a little beauty to the world. How about you?