A Flower Triggers a Memory

On Saturday I walked through Mt Rainier’s colorful alpine meadows and photographed the views and wildflowers. It was a gloriously clear September day on the mountain.  Flowers long gone to seed near my home are in peak bloom now at 6000′, and species that would never show their faces at lower elevations were in evidence, too.

One little beauty revealed itself better after I got home and looked closely at the photo.  It’s called Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbrata) though it’s not a grass and does not grow on Mt. Parnassus!  A fine, squiggly fringe protrudes between the five delicate white petals, and the five stamens are split into glistening hooks. I probably had seen it before but I didn’t remember it’s name. When I looked it up and saw that it was called Grass of Parnassus, there was my mother’s voice, saying that name in my ear. I was instantly transported back to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

My mother especially loved the little wildflowers that grow close to the ground – the ones that demand a closer look. We would go for drives and hikes up in the Blue Ridge Mountains when I visited and she would point them all out – “Oh, that’s a Stiff Gentian – Nodding Lady Tresses – Grass of Parnassus.”  Under the trees around her home she planted the native wildflowers that suited her location, delighting in their return each spring.

In October 1998 she returned from a trip to another mountain range, the Italian Alps, feeling slightly ill. She made an appointment to see her doctor and a round of referrals began, which ended with the shocking news that she had pancreatic cancer.  A vital, healthy 75-year-old, she was never sick and rarely even caught a cold. In those days a pancreatic cancer diagnosis meant 6 months to live. Maybe.

She stubbornly refused to schedule any treatment until after Thanksgiving and Christmas had been celebrated according to family traditions. After the holidays her friend Martha drove my mother to Duke University Hospital, where she had exploratory surgery. I flew down from New York and waited nervously that day in the hospital, but it was a short wait – the cancer was inoperable.  A month or so later my mother began the grueling chemo and radiation regimen doctors prescribed as the next best thing to surgery. Every few months I came down to help out.

Late summer brought a brief reprieve in the disease course, allowing her to attend the local outdoor classical music festival she so loved.  And one day we  drove back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. She didn’t have enough energy for a hike, but we explored the rocks near the road, where she showed me the Grass of Parnassus.


It turns out that several flowers go by that name. The pretty little flower I photographed on Mount Rainier and the one my mother loved are very similar.  Both flowers reward us when we take a close look – the western version with it’s fancy fringing and the eastern flower with its subtle tracery of veins. Here’s the flower my mother showed me that day (photo by Craig Fraiser of Arkansas):

Parnassia asarifolia

My mother managed to celebrate one more Thanksgiving with her family. As Christmas approached she must have vowed to make it that far, no matter what.

At dawn on Christmas day she took her last breath in her own bed, the humble little wildflowers at rest underground in the woods around her home, waiting for spring.



    • My parents, especially my mother, instilled a deep appreciation of nature in me and my brothers. That positive is stronger than the negative, but I still don’t like Christmas, even 14 years afterwards.


  1. A beautifully compiled post – both the image and your loving and appreciative tribute. Osmosis is a powerful component when sharing a passion and enthusiasm. Your mother’s love of nature has clearly had a significant influence on you.


  2. A lovely post Lynn. I think one of the greatest gifts a parent can give is a love of nature and the the wonders around us. I fear in this day and age this doesn’t happen and surely explains the mountains of litter just thrown out onto the roadside. So many young people just don’t seem to care and I can only assume it’s because they haven’t been taught to. Lessons in school are nothing like as important as those our parents teach us.


  3. Ah, Lynn, this is such a wonderful post. I like your mom very much, and I didn’t know her. I knew you had solid roots somewhere. North Carolina, huh? I grew up there, too. I would very much like to have known you and your mom. I will be leaving soon, too. Your words and stories mean a great deal to me as do your visits and comments on my posts. Thank you.


    • You probably would have appreciated many things about her – that I can see – though she was terribly afraid to put anything out there that might be construed as unusual, not a quality I aspire to, nor you, I think! 😉 I hope your comment about leaving is in reference to the general realities of life in the 7th decade, and not to anything specific. North Carolina is in interesting place – a very big state – and my connection is actually that my parents retired there. I also lived there, for a year or two, but wasn’t comfortable and moved back to New York. We moved around when I was young, mostly in the northeast. But my mother’s parents had deep roots in West Virginia, and some of that was communicated. A certain southern something!


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