Stepping out onto the deck with my morning coffee, I take a deep breath of the rich, earthy scents that yesterday's rain has left behind and watch as the sun emerges from behind the pines that shelter my cottage.
It's still cold up here in the Vermont mountains, but already the chickadees are singing, the doves have returned to coo in the trees, and the ruffled grouse is beating a fallen log with his wings. His drumming is directed to the lady grouses in the neighborhood so they'll know that he's ready, willing, and able to set up housekeeping once again.
Laughing at his determined rhythm, I pull my down vest a little closer and step carefully off the deck onto the spongy grass.
This is my favorite time of year. The compost pile's still frozen, and the ground's too wet to work. So instead of heading for the wheelbarrow and the cache of gardening tools tucked under the kitchen deck, I wander around the area sipping my coffee.
The Irish mosses under the towering red pines have already begun to green up, particularly along the path that meanders through the woods. The poplars' gnarly branches are bursting with soft pussy-willow seedpods, buds have formed on my sturdy mountain magnolia, and the tips of what will soon be crocuses and early daffodils are beginning to emerge from around the base of a tall pine.
Putting my coffee cup down on a handy tree stump, I reach in my pocket and pull out a small sketch pad and pen to make some notes.
It's been a hard winter, but so far things look good. Turning up the slope toward the edge of the forest, I notice that the pachysandra is starting to lose its stunned I've-been-under-the-snow-for-four-months look and is actually flowering.
The groundcover's resilience amazes me. This particular clump of pachysandra was planted around my family home in Pennsylvania nearly 60 years ago. My aunt tended it, then gave me a few cuttings when I married and moved to my first house. I've moved several times since, and each time, I've left flourishing clumps of pachysandra surrounding my old house and taken a few dozen cuttings with me for the new. The clumps flowering in the snow before me are the latest offspring.
I make a few notes about transplanting some of the new shoots in a few weeks, then wander across the circular pebbled drive toward the stone wall my husband built to separate the driveway from my beds of roses, daylilies, and peonies.
I shift a few stones back into place and search the beds for signs of life. The peonies speak to my heart. I found the first plants beside the back steps at my first house, and, like the pachysandra, I've moved them from house to house until they reached Vermont.
To this day they remind me of Rosalie, the next-door neighbor who took me under her wing when I was pregnant with my first child. I knew as little about caring for a child as I did about caring for a bed of peonies when we first met, but Rosalie showed me the way. The day my husband and I moved in, she turned up with a pitcher of lemonade, a plate of homemade cookies, a heart overflowing with kindness, and the conviction that God had brought us together for a reason.
She helped me find a pediatrician, a church, and a diaper service, drove me to the hospital and held my hand through a near miscarriage, and celebrated with my young husband when our baby stayed right where he was supposed to.
Once our baby was born some weeks later, Rosalie showed me how to care for him. And when the peonies began to push up through the cold spring earth, she showed me how to care for them as well.
Today, even though she's hundreds of miles south, as I look out over the peony bed along the stone wall, carefully checking for any of the red shoots from what must now be a hundred different plants, I feel Rosalie's beautiful spirit all around.
In fact, I feel the sweet spirits of many old friends surrounding me as I look around my yard. A junco flits from branch to branch in the lilac bushes my friend Jennifer gave me a couple of years ago, then hops over to the Rose of Sharon, my friend Debbie's mom, Betty, gave me a few years before she died. Both Betty and her flowering hedge were tough enough to survive the winter winds on Shelter Island, a tiny cookie of land off Long Island, but Vermont winters are another story. I make a note to ask Debbie for new cuttings next time she visits her mother's old home.
Wandering back toward my abandoned coffee cup, the sense of peace and spiritual connection surrounding me is strong. My friends and I are hundreds and thousands of miles and even whole lifetimes apart. We are separated by time and distance, and death. But every time I loosen the dirt around one of the plants they've given me, every time I snip a perfect blossom or prune a delicate branch, I feel them standing beside me.
I have been so blessed.
Reprinted with permission from Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, Copyright © 2011 G. Ellen Michaud. All rights reserved.