The best time to plant a tree, as the old Chinese proverb goes, was twenty years ago; the second best time to plant one is now.
As it happens, we planted several trees twenty years ago, one of which was a Camellia Donation that had been given to us by my mother, who had a bit of a thing for camellias. She had limited faith in my gardening abilities, and I like to think that she would be pleasantly surprised that not only have we kept it going, but also that her grave is the beneficiary of a few flowers from it each Mothering Sunday. Today was no different.
Another Chinese proverb suggests that there are two kinds of perfect people: those who are dead, and those who have not yet been born. It seems odd that our default sentiment as humans is to assert that those who have gone before were in some way ‘better’ than they were, whatever that means. We distil their lives into the perfect bits that it suits us to remember, rather than a fair-minded reflection of everything they were. In the brave mythologies we construct, they were forever doing little favours, turning the other cheek and being generally reasonable. They may well have been all the above but, in a way, aren’t we all?
This strikes me as missing the point. In my world, the most interesting things about those who have gone before are far more likely to be the imperfections and peccadillos than any memory of regular church attendance and on-demand baby-sitting.
My mother, for whom, incidentally, baby-sitting was another country even though we lived only 100 yards up the road, is a case in point. When I think about her, I tend not to dwell just on her amazing cooking, her beautiful garden, her bravery and her unassuming kindness; I think also of her constantly folding and re-folding used paper bags and putting them in the fourth drawer down; I think of her complete obsession with Labradors above almost anything else, and of tightly held opinions that came from the editorial pages of the Daily Mail; I think of her bashing the Ewbank sweeper against the guest bedroom door at 6.30 a.m when we went to stay, and the clearing away of the dinner things long before the meal was over. Sometimes, I think of the silences when neither of us could come up with a helpful comment, when things were difficult between us.
When it was her turn to die, we were able to care for her in her own home until the end, to hold her hand as the Cheyne Stokes breaths slowly died away. In the days and weeks before, relieved for the first time of any expectations that the world might have of her, she blossomed into the person she truly was. She talked of her loveless upbringing in Aberdeenshire when her parents, who were too busy winning the war to bring up children, sent her away to cousins who didn’t want her. She talked of her love of race horses, aeroplanes and art, and of the countries she wished she’d seen. She told funny stories about my father, and my sister and my childhoods. She repaired strained relationships, told slightly improper stories to grandchildren and died on St. Georges’ Day as content as any of us had ever seen her. Her funeral was a celebration of late-blooming happiness.
I grew to understand how much she had had to go through, and how far she had had to travel to become the person she eventually was, and that any imperfections were simply the mile posts on her journey, as they are with us all. That’s why I love them.
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.