February 14, 2012

I grew up in Bakersfield, in California’s hot, dry Central Valley. Each year my family would travel to San Francisco to visit my grandparents, Italian immigrants who lived on the slopes of Telegraph Hill under the shadow of Coit Tower. The Hill was still wild in those days, with trees and vines covering the spaces where expensive condos now stand. It was paradise for kids – we could run through the gardens and vacant lots, up the paths and down the old brick staircases from the time of the Gold Rush that wrapped around the Hill and served as the streets. The lush greenery and plants that thrived there in the moist, foggy San Francisco climate – hydrangea, calla lilies, eucalyptus – seemed so strange to us, so different from those that grew in our sun-baked home.

My grandparents had a garden that ran along the Greenwich Steps, clinging to the hillside in a way that must have reminded them of the childhood home in the Italian Alps which they had left behind. Of course they grew vegetables, and also simple, old-fashioned garden flowers such as daisies, fuchsias and roses. The garden was beautifully tended, but in spite of that they permitted a certain amount of wildness to remain, and tolerated plants like the ivy and nasturtiums and baby’s tears that crept in from the untamed edges of the Hill, climbing and filling the empty spaces with enthusiasm.

Of all these wild garden “volunteers”, my favorites were the bunches of tiny blue forget-me-nots that popped up in the shadiest part of the garden. The tender green leaves and the bright blue flowers were so fresh and cheerful, and so unlike anything that would have survived in our hot Bakersfield garden. Whenever my grandmother asked me to go into the garden and pick flowers for the house, the forget-me-nots were always my first choice. Mixed with daisies, they fit perfectly into a tiny pewter vase she had brought with her on the boat from Genoa so many years before, a parting gift from her beloved little sister, Adriana. Forty years later, the memory of that farewell would still bring tears to her eyes when I proudly put my little arrangement on the table next to her bed.

The day of my grandmother’s funeral, I put the same beloved little vase, the same favorite blue and white bouquet, on a small table set in the vastness of the Italian Church, to keep company with the simple brass box that held her ashes. Beside it was a photo of her, happy in her garden, a basket of flowers on her arm.   Now I see the bundles of tiny blossoms at the Flower Market, blue eyes twinkling from their newspaper wrappings, and I’m the one who pauses and drifts back in time. They are the key to so many memories, so much a part of childhood and family and San Francisco, a token of what is past but not forgotten — so perfectly named, sweet little forget-me-nots…