Nearer God’s heart in a garden

An avid gardener, my mother Evelyn Williams, cherished her granddaughter, Alia, above all her other beloved flowers. Photo: Leigh Anne Williams
An avid gardener, my mother Evelyn Williams, cherished her granddaughter, Alia, above all her other beloved flowers. Photo: Leigh Anne Williams
Published May 12, 2014

This reflection first appeared in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.

Every Canadian gardener knows the rule that it is not safe to plant anything before the Victoria Day weekend. That’s particularly true on the prairies, so my family’s annual trip to the outskirts of Camrose, Alta., to the greenhouses to buy bedding plants was a spring ritual that I eagerly anticipated while I was growing up. It was so wonderful to follow my parents down the hothouse aisles, breathing the warm, moist air, heavy with the scents of flowers and green things, and admire the bursts of colour when spring was still just getting started outside. My mother loved flowers, and I learned their many names, as they dropped regularly into her conversation. We would drive home, our trunk full of red and pink geraniums, bright marigolds, an array of petunias and begonias, purple and white lobelia, spiky dracaena and silvery-soft dusty miller to mix into planters.

At home, Dad would get out a small rototiller to churn up the beds around the house, stirring up the smell of the black earth and avoiding the peony shoots, while I helped Mum with the fun part of planting.

The rest of the spring and summer were intimately connected with the welfare of the garden. There was joy and satisfaction when plants flourished, impatience when cold weather stunted them, concern when heat wilted them or a hard rain pelted the blooms down into the mud. The worst was hail. Many a time my mother ran out into a shower of small ice pellets to pull the baskets and planters into a sheltered spot. A particularly terrible hailstorm that tore the leaves off the trees and wreaked havoc with the plants nearly ruined her summer a few years ago.

When I moved to Halifax to go to university, I revelled in the verdant abundance of plants, trees and flowers that grew in the more temperate east coast climate.

“There’s a peach tree in the yard,” I excitedly told my mother by phone, eager to share the wonders of my new city. I often detoured through the public gardens to walk or sit among the huge rhododendron bushes, azaleas and bed after bed of tulips and roses. Gardens for me, like her, were places to seek peace, solace and joy amidst the beauty of what was green and alive.

Hot Toronto summers, I found when I moved again, had their own exoticism. “Mum, I can grow jasmine and hibiscus and bougainvillea!” The Victorian garden at the Cathedral Church of St. James offered another welcome refuge from the slings and arrows of everyday life. I loved to read the quote from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, inscribed on a plaque: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden/Than anywhere else on earth.” My mother shared my wonder on a visit, admiring the English-style gardens and huge trees. “You’ve got to see the magnolia trees,” I told her, raving about that brief springtime window of a week or two when those big, delicate waxy-pink blooms cover the trees.

Two years ago, my mother came to help me care for our year-old daughter, Alia, while my husband was abroad. It seemed like the magnolia timing was right. She was here for the beginning of spring, but an unusual warm spell that March moved everything far ahead of its proper time. The magnolia buds were starting to open when a hard frost came. Almost all the flowers were ruined. We were both disappointed but told ourselves there would be other springs, other magnolia seasons.

Soon after, though, our own hard frost came. My mother told me that the doctor had found a tumour. Since she had no symptoms, no pain, I told myself it was early and all would be well. There was a surgery, and we hoped and prayed. But five weeks later, Mum was gone, torn from our arms so quickly we were all left frozen in shock and disbelief in the icy wind of February.

Not much grew on our balcony last summer. Maybe I didn’t have the heart or the energy to put into container gardening. I had to reserve my time and energy to tend one precious flower, the one that Mum loved more than any other-her only grandchild, Alia, whose middle name is Jasmine. “Take care of Alia,” she told me when she was in the hospital.

“I wish Grandma could go back to Grandpa’s house,” Alia said to me one day last winter.

“I wish she could, too,” I said, “but she can’t come back from heaven, sweetheart.”

“Is heaven far away?”

I faltered. How far is it?

“God is always with us, and Grandma is with God, so maybe she is close by,” I said. “Maybe she can see us.”

“Does heaven have a window?” Alia asked.

“Yes, maybe it’s like that,” I said.

I often think I am still frozen. I have been reminded that no season is truly safe, but I lifted Alia up the other day to touch the big fuzzy buds on our neighbour’s magnolia tree. And I’m watching to see how the big trees in the park, so broken in December’s ice storm, will begin to grow again. I think of the last stanza of Gurney’s poem: For he broke it for us in a garden / Under the olive trees / Where the angel of strength was the warden / And the soul of the world found ease.

Maybe this spring, I will begin to plant again.

God’s Garden 

The Lord God planted a garden
In the first white days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.
So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.
And I dream that these garden-closes
With their shade and their sun-flecked sod
And their lilies and bowers of roses,
Were laid by the hand of God.
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,–
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
For He broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.
Dorothy Frances Gurney



  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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