Pushing Up the Hyacinths by Geoff Gehman

Last fall my mother and I planted 16 hyacinth bulbs in five municipalities in three counties all over the northeastern Pennsylvania countryside. Our pilgrimage took us to her Zionsville cemetery, the Kutztown church where she had a nearly nasty fall, and a Moore Township tree almost as old as her 94 years. 

The floral odyssey is part of a master plan to help Mom forget her fading body, to raise her game during her final innings, as her fellow Brits like to term time. The mission includes kicking items off her Bucket List: whitewater rafting; nibbling a marijuana brownie; reuniting with the Englishman who painted her portrait in Ireland in 1954. It also includes turning virtually everything we do into a comic, cosmic school: visiting the E.R. for everything from irregular heartbeat to constipation; signing her cremation contract; playing bridge with two 80-something friends in a group we call Three Queens & a Joker and I call My Three Moms. Every adventure, every laugh, every twist is grist for my book “Planet Mom: Keeping an Aging Parent From Aging,” a crazy memoir married to a sneaky self-help guide.

Pat and Geoff’s Great Hyacinth Planting Spree began in late October on Gehman Road, named for another branch of the family tree rooted in Berks County’s Washington Township in the late-18th century. We cruised for 20 minutes, up and down and up again, until we admitted defeat. We decided that my trowel couldn’t make a dent in the lush grass framing the farm fields, and that the low-flying hyacinths surely would be wiped out by a tractor or a runaway car on the wide-open, naked berm. We drove away disappointed that our flowers couldn’t be neighbors of the Butter Valley Golf Port, a course/runway owned for two generations by a Gehman. 

We headed to another Gehman sanctuary in Doris, a 2000 Honda Accord named for a dear friend who willed Mom the money to buy her. Ten miles later we stood in the cemetery of the Zionsville Bible Fellowship Church, co-founded in the 1850s by my great-grandfather William, a Mennonite minister, after a feud with a nearby congregation. His gravestone borders memorials for my grandfather, another Mennonite minister named William, and my father, Larry, a Madison Avenue advertising man who fancied himself a lay preacher. 

After we buried Dad’s ashes in 2001, I planted a Montauk Daisy to thank him for planting us on the gorgeous South Fork, where I fell in love with Montauk daisies, which have fluttery white petals and a center resembling an egg-yolk button. Three months before Dad died, he and Mom agreed to share a headstone, a gorgeous gesture for a couple divorced for 37 years. His inscription, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson, is typically vigilant: “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Her inscription, courtesy of John Greenleaf Whittier, is typically benevolent: “If thou of fortune be bereft, / And in thy store there be but left / two loaves, sell one, and with the dole, / buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

Under Whittier’s lines I began digging holes for four hyacinths, one each for Mom, Dad, my sister Meg, and me. I was on the second hole when Mom convinced me the bulbs would grow better in a trench. Within 30 seconds she was scolding me for shallow troweling, using the same stern, singsong voice she uses when my fly is down.

“That’s not six inches.” 

“Hey, will you lay off? I know what I’m doing. I’ve been planting flowers for 40 years.” 

“Well, I’ve been planting flowers for 70 years and I say that’s not six inches. Don’t argue with your mother superior.”

Pissed off, I decided to settle the score with the cardboard ruler stapled to the bulb bag. Lo and behold, my trench was two inches short. My mother, bless her benevolent soul, refused to gloat over her victory. In fact, she apologized for her chiding.

“I’m sorry I’m such a mensch.” 

“Actually, mensch is the opposite word for what you are.” 

“Grinch?”

“That’s more like it.”

We left the cemetery with a good laugh at a gravestone for the Trumps, never thinking that in eight days they would be very distant relations to America’s new president. We hadn’t even exited the parking lot when I was slammed by the strangest sensation, a sort of déjà-vu tsunami. It took me three seconds to realize that it was the 15th anniversary of the day we buried my father’s ashes right here in Zionsville. I quickly chalked up the incredible coincidence to divine justice for a cemetery caretaker chopping down Dad’s daisy, ambushing it after it sprouted into a wild bush.

The next day we scouted suitable spots in rural Northampton County, one of six territories for the weekend countryside jaunts we’ve been taking for six years. After two hours of futility we felt as bleak as the gray, grim weather. We were bouncing along Beacon Road in Moore Township, a rolling, rutted lane between Bath and Nazareth, when we found our grail. There, by a bend by a sweeping field of corn, was a gently magnetic oak tree: huge, ancient, charmingly gnarled. It reminded us of shrine trees in County Clare, where Mom’s mom grew up; where Mom discovered paradise during World War II, safe from the blitzing of her native London, and where I set a book about seeing old rural Ireland through Mom’s eyes.

Under the oak I dug a hole in a mound choked by vines and gravel. Carving and chiseling, I cursed myself as a third-rate Johnny Appleseed and a first-rate Doubting Thomas, doubting that any flower, even a spring-awakening, faith-reviving hyacinth, could rise from such a tomb. I felt better knowing that the hole-filled tree was already holy, sanctified by a yellow 15 m.p.h. sign with an arrow bent in its direction.

The next weekend we roamed the Blue Mountain bowl, a series of slaloming valleys between Fogelsville and Kempton that I’ve nicknamed the Gods’ Steeplechase Course. We ran into obstacles at two of our favorite pit stops. We were thwarted by an overflow crowd for an annual oyster dinner at Jacob’s Union Church in Jacksonville, and by impenetrable plastic weed cover at Jerusalem Red Church in Kempton, site of one of my favorite Mom epiphanies. One afternoon we were strolling through the Jerusalem cemetery when we came upon a gravestone for the family Seltzer. After a perfect, poker-faced pause, Mom asked: “Where’s Alka?” And that’s when I realized my elegant, earthy, elderly mother was a true-blue, honest-to-goodness, fox-sly comedian.

We found happiness at Mount Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kutztown, site of an unhappy event. It was here in 2015 that Mom had a frightening fall after slipping my grip when I tripped on an uneven sidewalk. After I yanked her up, she prayed hysterically that she wouldn’t add a broken hip to a broken pelvis (2013) and a broken rib (2014). She ended up intact, cushioned by the grass and saved, she swears, by her guardian angel. In honor of her No. 1 deity, we planted three hyacinth bulbs in a garden bed by Mount Zion’s parking lot. As we rolled out of the lot, Mom rolled down a window and shouted: “Hallelujah — you are forgiven!”

This winter was unforgivably harsh to Mom’s health. A scary tumble in the lobby of her apartment building in Bethlehem was followed by a two-week hospitalization and rehab for the flu. Every time she caught her breath she was left breathless by bouts of irregular heartbeat. She was buoyed by the thought of seeing her hyacinths in bloom, a living memorial to her buoyant spirit. She even coined a rallying cry, suitable for bumper sticker and banner: “The hyacinths have to push up before I push up the hyacinths.”

We started our second pilgrimage at Mount Zion, where our three hyacinths were perfectly perky. We were happy to see them nested among equally happy tulips. We were happier to think that churchgoers would think our flowers were planted by angels. 

In the Zionsville cemetery we witnessed a minor miracle. The four hyacinths by my parents’ headstone had five blooms. Better yet, the bonus bloom was purple, Mom’s favorite color. I plucked a blossom for her to smell, knowing she couldn’t. Two years ago a .virus planted a wicked bacteria in a sinus cavity that blocks her from most smells and tastes, hell on earth for a big tfan of food and fragrance.

We found heaven on earth under the oak tree on Beacon Road. Rising from a heap of weeds and stones, our one white hyacinth was a noble sentry, a tiny tower of divinity, a bloody marvel. After staring at it for a good five minutes, I removed a bloom for Mom to smell, hoping for a bigger miracle. Filled with grace, she caught a whiff of perfume, her first truly enjoyable smell in 24 months. The car flooded with her larkish laugh and joy.

Driving away, we passed a woman walking a dog. Being a gregarious guy, I wanted to tell her to stop by the hyacinth under the oak, there because of the grace of us. Mom, being an exceptionally modest, exceedingly private English woman, told me to leave her be. I agreed, against my better nature.

A few hundred yards later, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the woman standing at our tree shrine. I peeked at Mom peeking at the stranger in a side-view mirror. Her smile blossomed.

Mom died, suddenly but not surprisingly, on June 11 at St. Luke’s Bethlehem, where she spent six splendid years volunteering in the O.R. waiting room. Her heart, and will, wore out before she could test her brand-new pacemaker. Her ashes were buried next to Dad’s on July 23, 10 days after the 60th anniversary of their wedding. In the spring she’ll be pushing up 16 hyacinths in five municipalities in three counties.


Geoff Gehman, a former resident of Wainscott, is the author of “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons” (SUNY Press). He lives in Bethlehem, Pa. His email address is geoffgehman@verizon.net.