Wherever I travel, my itinerary includes a visit to the local botanical gardens whenever possible. Through the years, I have wandered down so many garden paths, snapping photos of eye-catching blooms and breathing in the heavenly perfume of the flowers. Some lovely gardens that are well-worth a visit include Monet’s water garden in Giverny, France, the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA, and the Halifax Public Gardens in Nova Scotia.
In June 2019, my family and I spent a sunny afternoon roaming a botanical garden that is a bit closer to home: the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. At the time, a fragrant patch of lily-of-the-valley was in bloom. The delicate scent of these tiny bell-shaped flowers, calls to mind memories of my mother getting ready for an evening out with my father. Beautifully dressed and made-up, she always completed her ensemble with a spritz of Muguet perfume from the elegant glass bottle on her dresser.
My childhood memories and the pictures I took in Maine have inspired the following photo essay.
Anneliese Twigg sits at her French grandmother’s round kitchen table swinging her legs and tapping her heels against the wooden chair as she finishes her lunch. Across from her, Mémé is knitting. She knows how to make hats and mittens and even stuffed animals with her needles and colorful yarn. Anneliese hopes her grandmother will teach her how to knit someday.
In the center of the table, an old jelly jar filled with water holds a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley. Anneliese reaches out a pudgy hand to pull the sparkling glass closer. She studies the quilted pattern adorning the sides of the vase, and traces her finger over each square. The tiny white flowers sway like silent bells.
Breathing in the lovely fragrance of the lilies, Anneliese remarks, “They smell like Mama’s perfume.”
Mémé looks up. “In France they are called muguet.” She sets down her knitting and catches the ball of yarn in her gnarled hand as it rolls off the edge of the table. “I am going to tell you a story about why these flowers are so special.”
Sitting a little straighter and flipping her long blonde braid over her shoulder, Anneliese smiles. “Okay.”
“Hundreds of years ago in France, there was a girl named Elisabeth. She grew up in a royal chateau outside Paris with her brothers and sisters.”
Anneliese’s grey eyes widen in delight.
“And do you know what else?” Mémé asks.
“Elisabeth was your eleventh great grandmother, so this story is part of our family history.”
Mémé nods and gives a little laugh. “Elisabeth had three brothers. The oldest boy, Francis, became King of France when their father died. He and his wife, Mary, who was Queen of Scotland, ruled for just one year, and then Elisabeth’s younger brother, Charles Maximilien became King when he was just ten years old.”
Anneliese, who had turned ten just two weeks ago, gives her grandmother a skeptical look. “How can a little boy be a king?”
“That is how things were done then,” Mémé says with a shrug.
“But what about the flowers?”
“I am coming to that. Just listen, ma petite.” She folds her hands on the edge of the table and goes on with the story. “At a royal May Day celebration, someone gave Charles a sprig of muguet to wish him good luck. He was so charmed by the kind gesture, he decided to create a new holiday. He called it the Fête du Muguet and from that day on, he gave bouquets of lily-of-the-valley to his sisters and all of the ladies of the court on May 1.”
“For good luck?” Anneliese guesses.
“But of course,” Mémé says gently. “This tradition has lived on even until today. When I was a girl in France, my sisters and I would go into the little forest behind our farm to gather the muguet that grew wild underneath the trees every year on May 1, which also happened to be my birthday.”
Leaning forward to once again smell the flowers in the pretty little jar, Anneliese says, “I wish I was born on May Day like you, Mémé.”