For the next several weeks, we will republish our favorite “Teaching Lessons” columns from this year.
My mother died in January. Her name was Rosemary, and she tried to teach me, among so many other things, the names of the flowers. But I never paid attention. And now she’s gone.
When she spoke, she spoke in specifics, naming the plants and the birds and the places. When I wrote about my life, I relied on her to provide the tiniest details. She remembered everything, and she never questioned a question. She always had an answer, either because she knew or because she was confident enough to think she did.
Now I wonder, selfishly, how can I write without her? Who will furnish all of those peculiar details?
The word “detail” derives from the Latin word talea, a twig or cutting, and the French, detailler, to cut. A plant cutting is a bit of stem or root that can be used to grow more plants. My mother was known among her friends for her success in propagating by cuttings and her bravery in taking, asking for, or stealing them from other people’s yards, protected forests, and neglected gardens.
I could have taken so many lessons from my mom but didn’t: how to ride horses and motorcycles, how to garden and play the harmonica, how to wire a house for electricity. I didn’t learn the names of the plants, but I learned that they are important. That names have meaning, that words—the right words, planted in the right places—give life. That if you know the plant’s name, you can learn how it can heal you and how you can help it grow.
So sometimes, when I am lost or blocked or bored with my writing, I can gradually unstick myself by picking apart a single word, like a child unfurling a spear of grass and finding new seeds.
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