Flowers are hands, the words from a poem, and images burst in on my mind. My mother’s aged hands, the blue veins pulsing.
Petunias, fuchsia coloured and white. Mother Mary John pointed to them during an excursion around the gardens of Our Lady of Good Counsel school. They were not just bursts of colour on green stems. They were structured into different parts, that served different purposes, like the parts of the human body.
And sex floated into my brain. Rudimentary sex, the only sort I understood as a ten-year-old. The long stamen in the centre, crusted with pollen for the bees to gather on hind legs as they sipped the nectar.
The bees took the nectar to feed their honey addiction. They spread the pollen, like a farmer spread seeds. Mother Mary John used such words as stamen and nectar but she did not mention sex.
Even the expression ‘the birds and the bees’ was foreign to me then. My older sister had hinted at ‘the facts of life’, these facts as stolidly rooted in our lives as any indicators on a map that offer directions from one point to another. You have to follow them if you are to survive.
The flowers would not survive if the bees did not do their job. The process of photosynthesis would not take place if the sun never shone. Or the rain did not fall. Mother Mary John did not explain the word photosynthesis at that time, too difficult for ten-year-olds, she might have decided, but she told us to note the shape of the petals, the way they flanged in an arc around the widest point of the flower and then tapered off into the centre where they joined the yellow crusty pollen part and met the stamen, which held all the wonder, even as it was well hidden behind the showy parts.
The calyx, a word that comes to me now from the depths of my memory store and refuses to offer up any secrets. The way memories tip into my mind and offer up a hint of the way it felt then as a ten-year-old. The ecstasy of new ideas. The sheer joy of something coming at me for the first time. Like the way the flowers formed part of the natural world as Mother Mary John described. And behind us children and the black robed nun, the big yellow brick church loomed. With its modern façade, the wide entry way and double front doors that were always open. There at the back of the church where one of the aproned volunteers had propped a series of shelves in which she tucked row upon row of pamphlets. Sixpence each, to read about your religion.
To read what was happening in the Magellan society, where missionaries dressed in white held black babies and blessed them with water running through their fingers. Other pamphlets whose front covers displayed the curled-up foetus of some never to be born child, with the words: Abortion is murder. The placenta hanging like a cut ribbon on one of the pictures when I flicked through trying to make sense of this foreign world. Connected to sex and flowers but sinister somehow because people did dreadful things to these babies to make them come into the world before they were ready.
My mother’s last baby came into the world on time, but the placenta that fed her had crumbled away and stopped feeding the baby in those last few days, or so my mother told me. She did not know soon enough that the baby inside of her, a little girl who was almost ready to be born, had not received enough nourishment to survive the last hours of her life in the womb and her journey into the world.
Still born. The words sit in my mind like a terrible secret. Still born. Born still, lifeless motionless, like the babies on the abortion leaflets, those foetuses already turning blue and hard from their too early exposure in the world.
Mother Mary John did not talk of foetuses as we walked through the gardens around the church, but she told us about the cycle of plant life. She told us how when the summer came and with it all that heat, the petals on the petunias would wither and die. The gardeners would next dig up the remnants of the decaying flowers, then turn them into the soil to fertilise for the next bunch of flowers. The agapanthus and summer leaves that could better resist the heat, though not for long.
In their turn, death would come. Mother Mary John ascribed all this beauty to God’s work. We had no say in its happening. We could only wait and wonder at its beauty. But there were bad people in the world, she said, who tried to stop the beauties of nature from unfolding.
The murderers she did not name, the men who decided that life should not exist as we knew it. And planted seeds where they should not be planted, then ripped them out as soon as the plants began to grow. Those people who thought they could sin and get away with it.
Mother Mary John taught us that the world was black and white. The petunias taught us that things are much more complex. That flowers can be hands.