Heaven in a Wildflower

Finding infinity in the mottled leaves of a trout lily

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor 

In late winter I watch in anticipation for the pointy maroon tips of our native Erythronium umbilicatum leaves to push up through the hard winter soil. I run outside to my garden several times a day — looking, feeling, hoping.

After the leaves emerge and unfurl, you can see the reason this plant’s common name is trout lily. The brown-and-green mottled leaves look similar to the markings on a brook trout. Not only is this a sweet little North Carolina wildflower, but it is also a tangible, seasonal reminder for me to slow down, take one day at a time and try not to rush through my life to the next big thing. Let me explain.

One sunny, but chilly, March afternoon many years ago, I stopped by my sister, Reco’s, house on the way back from visiting my mother in West Virginia. The precarious horseshoe curves of the narrow country roads were the only thing keeping me awake. Look away for one minute, and I might end up on the wrong side of the road, or worse, on the wrong side of the battered, flimsy-looking guardrail. I was tired from the drive, and from the last few days shuffling Mom to doctor’s appointments. As often happens, if we are lucky enough to have our parents with us as they phase into their silver years, the tables had turned. It was now my responsibility to carpool Mom wherever she needed to go. Even if that meant driving in from North Carolina — two states away.

Reco met me in the driveway, and we greeted each other with big hugs and kisses. My family has always unabashedly engaged in public displays of affection. We were a big, loud Italian tribe who argued and loved with equal intensity, always knowing the love was so much stronger than anything we could ever argue about. After catching up inside over a cup of coffee and relaying all of the news from home, I got up, stretched my legs, and said I’d better be hitting the road. I still had a little over three hours to go.

“Just one more thing before you go,” Reco insisted. She wanted to walk in the woods behind her house so she could show me the carpet of yellow wildflowers. “You will not believe their funky, spotted leaves,” she said in wonder. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, but I knew just the plant she was referring to. It was one of my favorites that crept throughout the woodlands on the private estate in Hillsborough where I tended the gardens. I was eager to get back on the road and ready to get home, but we trudged over the hills covered in apples trees and invasive trumpet vine seedlings.

We walked through her woods, and talked about my upcoming plans to go back to school. She confided she hadn’t been feeling well, and the doctor was trying a new medication to quell the worsening symptoms of Crohn’s Disease

“There,” she emphasized as she stopped and pointed. “There. Do you see it?”

Yes, there they were, their telltale fishy leaves carpeting the forest floor. Reco bent down and took a large kitchen spoon out of her back pocket — she wasn’t a gardener, I guess only I had inherited that gene from our maternal grandmother — and dug several of these yellow-belled beauties for me. She pressed them into a Ziploc baggie and said, “I wanted you to have these in your garden.”

Walking out of the thick underbrush and trees toward her house, we caught a glimpse of the sun reflecting off the bright white church next door. Stopping and pausing, as if on cue, we took in the sunbeam bouncing off of the steeple and into the woods. But, I was tired and ready to go. “Better get going,” my words pierced the moment.

I drove home to North Carolina, gas pedal pressed to the floor, as usual, thinking of all the busyness that awaited me in Cary. Work, family, church, volunteer commitments, school preparations, an upcoming daughter’s high school graduation: My life was an endless merry-go-round of activity.

This is where I say, even though it sounds like a cliché life is precious, life is short, and I need to savor each day, even each moment, with those I love. Because today could possibly be my last day with them. And, although this was not my last day with Reco, it was one of the last days. Had I known, had I any inkling of foresight, I wouldn’t have rushed that day. I would’ve watched that little country church beam a luminous miracle into the woods. I wouldn’t have insisted on leaving so soon. I would have stayed and had supper with her, maybe even stayed the night.

But, I was too busy.

I miss her sense of wonder. I miss her slow country pace. I miss her.

Now, I don’t take anything for granted — my family, my friends, my health, my sanity, my breath. Not even a tiny yellow flower with mottled leaves.

Life is too brief. Like trout lilies, our time here is over so quickly. This spring, won’t you join me near some trout lilies or bloodroot or bluebells and pause in their presence? They’re just little things, but what you’ll grow to understand is the little things in life are truly the big things. Actually, they’re the only things. And they, like trout lilies, pass away too soon.

Cheryl Capaldo Traylor writes about nature, local happenings, and the unsung brilliance of everyday people. She finds inspiration in gardening, hiking, and reading. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment at http://www.cherylcapaldotraylor.com.

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