Sunday, July 20, 2008

Memories of Childhood

I was asked recently to paint a yellow chrysanthemum for a woman whose aunt used to grow them. She had such fond memories of her aunt and of her aunt's garden that it had contributed to her choice of career as a professional gardener. While I was uneasy about the subject (too many petals and an difficult colour on a gold ground) I loved the idea of painting something for sentimental reasons, so I accepted the challenge. It turned out to be a wonderful flower to paint with its swirling ball of petals and the Renaissance flourish of its awkward little leaves. I am very happy with it and hope that my client is too.

A few years ago my Mum wrote a book called "The Real Garden Road Trip" in which she and a friend drove across Canada interviewing gardeners whose gardens they found along the way. One of the things she learned was how common it is for people to choose garden plants that remind them of their childhoods. Many people were even unaware of their reason for choosing these plants until they were interviewed.

In my own garden I grow phlox because their musty, lovely smell takes me back to the Maritime gardens of eastern Canada where I was a child. I grow roses partly because their smell transports me instantly to the English gardens of my grandparents in Lancashire. I even found a David Austen rose called "Ambridge" which is named after a fictional village from the radio series "The Archers". I planted it for my wonderful grandmother who was a painter and who listened every day to "The Archers" after lunch.

Proust wrote about the visceral memories evoked by the smell of madeleine cakes and this kind of memory has become known as a madeleine. I'll bet that many, maybe most gardeners choose to include madeline memories and nostalgic plants in their gardens, maybe without even realizing why they do it.

What plants have you planted in your garden because they take you back to your childhood in a visceral or even unconscious way? What plant would you choose to commemorate in a painting if you were to honour some aspect of your past? These are two different things, arent they? The first subconscious. The second more cerebral.


  1. Jean, first of all, your painting is wonderful. I love the depth and shadows and the apparent substance implicit in the flower. It gives a very solid sense of itself. Very, very pretty and sensual, if I may say. (I did anyway.)

    Smells do evoke the past, by all means. Mine is the smell of honeysuckle and gardenias from my childhood in New Orleans. We only lived there one year as a family, yet I can so recall that town's smells. I was a lucky kid, though, far more fortunate than most! I say this because the garbage men used to allow me to handle their long sticks with those pokers at the end, suitable for picking up papers without bending over. Man, you can't beat modern technology! Turns out they would look for me when they came by. Once, one of them went up to my Mom and asked where I was, lol. I was about 4.

  2. Thanks for sharing this memory Steve. It sounds like the title of a novel, "Garbage and Gardenias".

  3. I enjoyed looking at this close up. The "green-browns" of the flower are mesmerizing. I love the gilt background, and those leaves are alive. This painting really captures the flower in all of its "chrysanthemum-ness" ;)
    It is a pleasure to see your art.
    On top of that, you have written such a terrific story.
    What an intrepid journey. Did they write a book? If not, the notes must make facinating reading. I can see your artistic talent runs in the family. I had not heard of "the Archers" before, but I found out about it online. I can see why she looked forward to it!
    madeline memories... what a wonderful question.
    Rumer Godden said that her memories of her childhood in India was of Frangipani and cess. Not unlike Gardenia's and garbage!
    You know I will have to get back to you on smell...but the sound of the ocean strongly comes to mind. My Aunt Joan and Grandmother lived on the coast in Mendocino. We had our own cove with a view to the Pt cabrillo lighthouse. There was all kinds of treasure in the cove such as driftwood which we decorated the garden with. Anyway, there were caves along the cliffs, and logs would pound away in them with great thumping noises. You really did not hear this during the day, just at night. This was in concert with the regular sweeps of light over everything from the lighthouse. So sounds of the ocean takes me right back there.
    The one plant I cannot live without is Borage. This was a favorite plant of my aunts and it did well with drought and wind in the meadow garden. In my own garden it is covered with bees. It reseeds! It certainly has happy memories for me. Most of the plants like yellow lupine we had were collected along the coast from seed. Our favorite "nursery" was a ghost town funnily enough just north of us called Caspar. the plants had run wild there and we collected seedlings, leaving plenty to continue growing there. It reminds me of those happy "plant expeditions".
    Well, looking at your post I see this is not exactly the question you asked.
    Thanks for sharing your art, and letting me ramble on.:)

  4. Philip, I have replied to your wonderful comment somewhere and now can't remember where. Anyway, it was apparently not here.

    I love your description of your romantic childhood with driftwood and seed collecting. A lucky boy indeed.

    My Mum's book is "The Real Garden Road Trip" and is available on Amazon.

    I look forward to your next fascinating blog post and, as always, your thoughtful comments.


  5. The real garden road trip! I am checking Amazon now!

  6. I love all my childhood plants. I've planted white peonies because they are so pretty and the smell reminds me of my mother. I spent a lot of time watching the ants work on the buds. I also remember the scent of the lily of the valley that grew between our garage and the neighbor's. A place where only children went. Though not related to the smell of flowers, one of my earliest memories is of wriggling out of my mother's arms when she had undressed me for a bath one summer evening. I took a powder and made for the door. The joy of pure naked freedom--until I saw the bigger kids still outside playing. I tried to hide in the large pile of day lilies (classic midwest orange ones) in bloom at the corner of the house until my mother came and retrieved me. The leaves are scratchier than they look.