Falling into the Future: Nostalgia, Grief and Granny’s Begonia

My grandmother died on a Sunday evening. Sometime around nine o’clock. The moon was a thin sliver in the sky, hanging sideways like a wonky smile. I remember looking up at it earlier that night and feeling something, not quite knowing what it was. The moon, both mysterious and ubiquitous, became momentous on the evening Olga Reid left this world.

It’s five years since she died and the begonia from her sunroom is flowering. It starts in early August sometime between her birthday at the end of July and the date of her death on August the 11th. Like the moon’s crooked grin, this plant has taken on a certain meaning in my life. It could be called gaudy, with its wild leaf stalks splaying out here and there and it’s crinkled green and brown variegated leaves. But it’s not to me.

I don’t know how old it is. It never played a starring role on my visits. Granny had a Sedum morganianum hanging in the passageway between her kitchen and sunroom. I found it more interesting, with its long tails of bean-shaped grey succulent leaves. It came with the begonia to my old Marrickville courtyard. It’s since died, and when I pulled it out of the pot I found pellets of sheep poo in the bottom.

Granny would have never bothered buying commercial potting mix. She was not frivolous like that. Her mix was made with compost, shit and bit of dirt.”

The begonia’s proper name is Begonia ‘Cathedral Windows’. A grower told me this. He reckons it’s one of the oldest and toughest begonia cultivars. This suits granny perfectly. Hers was a no-nonsense kind of love. Butter on toast and a cup of tea is what we’d be offered when we visited. Maybe even an occasional sweet treat. A melting moment, perhaps. Home-made of course.

Granny’s begonia now lives in my sunroom at our house on the river. Over time, bits of it/her have been propagated and shared. Granny also lives in my brother’s dining room, in my parent’s home in Orange, at one dear friend’s home in Tasmania and another’s in Sydney. My friends who grow her call her Olga and send me pics when she’s flowering. She’s precious to them, because she’s precious to me.

Nostalgia plays a role in my love of this particular plant. I treasure it, not because of how it looks or how rare it might be, but because I loved Granny. It’s a symbol of her influence on my life and what she meant to me. It’s a sentimental, subjective attachment.

Nostalgia is ever-present in the garden. For a garden designer, it’s a powerful tool – one of the easiest and most important ways to make someone feel comfortable. From nostalgia stems meaning. From meaning comes stories. From stories comes connection.

And yet. And yet. Nostalgia is a story that can bring comfort, but at the same time, complacency. It’s a romantic and easy emotion with an inherent focus on the past. Looking back, yearning for a time when things were rosy, even if in reality they weren’t.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, but it cannot be the end of a story or a connection. It can form the foundations, it can be mixed into the walls, but it cannot be the roof of my home. Past, present and future need to inform each other equally. The garden, as always, frames this idea more eloquently than I can. In the garden, plants are selected often because of nostalgia, but once they’re planted, they’re here. Now. They respond to the immediate environment in ways that are particular to the patch of earth they grow from. They begin to tell a new story. The future is an idea, grown from this plant, this place, this time. It is a response to the lessons of the past, both bad and good, the felt experience of the present, and the hope of the future. Nostalgia, then, is just the beginning.

Granny’s death was surprising. She was 90. I wasn’t surprised that she was ready to move on, but I was deeply surprised at how much it impacted me.”

I felt silly for a long time, for grieving Granny as much as I did. I told myself the same old stories – it was her time to go, she’d had a happy, full life – and on and on. They didn’t work.

Then, one day, on the road between Cobar and Broken Hill, I listened to a podcast interview with Irish poet David Whyte, with Krista Tippet from On Being. He spoke of his grief in losing his friend, philosopher John O’Donohue. He likened the state of grief to falling. Like falling into love, except falling into grief, he said.  “And you’re falling towards the foundation that they held for you in your life that you didn’t realize they were holding. And you fall and fall and fall and you don’t find it for the longest time… But then there comes a time when you finally actually start to touch the ground that they were holding for you. And it’s from that ground that you step off into your new life.” I couldn’t stop crying. I realised, finally, why.

And so, I found the ground that Olga Reid held for me. And so, five years on, I have grown into myself a little more. I’m growing her plant, the funny little begonia from her sunroom. It takes me back to her house on the corner of Edward Street. It reminds me of our walks around her garden, and our chats accompanied by tea and toast.

The plant is symbolic of her being a part of me. At the same time as it connects me to my origins, it points towards the future too. Growing and changing, and growing and changing. And as it does, I care for it, I share pieces of it, and in turn, it sprouts new stories.

And so, the funny little begonia in my sunroom is as much me as it is Granny. It’s from the past, the present and the future. It’s here, in my home, as much as it was once there, in hers.