On their very first date, way back in 1931, my parents went to the Philadelphia Flower Show. My mother was a 20-year-old beauty. My father was a dashing young lawyer of 26.
The romance took off quickly, and they were married before the next spring. My mother always insisted that she accepted this ardent suitor’s proposal because he had shown her just how lovely the world could be. My father always said that she was more beautiful than the most beautiful rose at the show.
So it was probably inevitable that my sister and I were taken to the Philadelphia Flower Show as tots, taking trolleys and buses for what seemed an eternity to get to the old Commercial Museum in Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.
It all seemed so vast to me. But it wasn’t cool to go to flower shows with your mother when the elementary school years were over. I did go back once with my high school friends, but the mission was not, alas, to smell the flowers. It was to be near Penn’s campus to search out the cute guys all around us.
And then I became a student at Penn myself. During a particularly stormy romance, I still recall buying a lone ticket to the Flower Show, and wandering around, blinking back tears at all that beauty because I was so dramatically melancholy. But spring was just around the corner, and the flower show propelled me past my broken heart.
When marriage and motherhood took over the reins of my life, I do recall trying to brave the show with my husband and three tiny girls in tow, and the misery of that experience. But as the girls got older and a bit more reasonable, we did occasionally head to the then-new Civic Center. Depending on their ages and moods, those trips were variously successful. Of course, our daughters grew up, and soon enough, it was back to just the two of us. And in the inevitable march of time and life’s passages, my mother became a widow. Each year, my husband and I would plan an afternoon with her at the show.
How she loved it, even all those decades after her young lawyer had squired her around. Her eyes always sparkled on those Flower Show days, and she seemed to shed years. When the show moved downtown to the spanking new Convention Center, it morphed into an even greater extravaganza. There was the instant “Wow! factor” for Mom because of the space.
By 2006, my mother’s health was failing rapidly, yet she desperately wanted to get to that show. So my husband and I checked into wheelchairs and handicap access, and just when we thought we had it all figured out, Mom made her pronouncement. No more flower shows for her. I’ll never forget the resignation in her voice. She died later that year.
The next year, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the show. Too many memories lurking. Too many painful associations. But I couldn’t stay away for long.
That first year back, I walked and walked, a dazed, happy wanderer drinking in ruby red roses, the dainty violets, a splendid lemon tree. And I kept remembering my mother’s face, and missing her like crazy. Everywhere I looked were explosions of color. How she would have loved it. Last year, before I left the show, I bought a tiny fern to carry away with me. It was still young and delicate, and not quite perfect.
I relished the idea of nurturing it. In a sometimes too-quiet empty nest, I wanted something to care for. My mother, I know, would have understood.
I’ll be going again this weekend.
Once again, I’ll pause to buy something alive and beautiful. It will be small and not too expensive. And I’ll leave with sweet remembrances of flower shows past… and of that couple I carry in my genes and my heart who once, long ago, found love among the flowers. ••
The 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show runs through March 9 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.