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A Floral Tribute

Author: Sarah Rushbrooke
Year: Adventure

Please note: this piece contains descriptions of loss some readers may find upsetting.

You’re not meant to make life-altering decisions when a loved one dies. But I did.

Back in 2017 my Grandma came to visit me in Glasgow. I knew then that it would be her final adventure. As we climbed the wonky steps of the tenement, she gripped my hand tightly, her rings digging into my flesh. A draught came from that one wooden sash window that no one could close. I swung open the front door, revealing my new home to her.

She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief, a blue C.B stitched in one corner. ‘It’s beautiful, Sarah.’

My partner and I took her on a bright red bus that served afternoon tea. Happy birthday banners decorated the table we were seated at.

‘But whose birthday is it?’ Grandma kept whispering to me.

‘It was yours, a few weeks ago.’ I’d whisper back. She’d nod, take a sip of prosecco, watch out the window as Glasgow whizzed by, then she’d turn to me again: ‘But whose birthday is it?’

Afterwards we drove up to Loch Lomond. Julie Andrews joined us in the car for a singalong: 'Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens!' We found a bench close to the water's edge. She pulled me near and wrapped her cream knit shawl around our shoulders. I nestled into her; I smelt talc and lilacs. The evening sun pierced through the clouds, streaks of gold were painted across the loch. A small boat bobbed gently in the water.

Months of lockdowns and restrictions had me dreading Christmas. It would be the first festive season I spent away from my family. I WhatsApped friends asking if they’d all chip in for some foliage and I’d show them how to make a seasonal wreath on Zoom. It had been nearly a decade since I’d worked in a florist and created with my hands.

I filled the bath with cold water. Secateurs back in hand, I was transported back to that 15-year-old who conditioned boxes of roses, chrysanthemums and carnations every Saturday morning. I slipped off the elastic bands from each bundle of foliage and snipped the stems. I plunged the greenery deep in the water to rehydrate. I watched as woody conifer branches turned my fingers black and the eucalyptus left behind sticky sap. The bathroom filled with relaxing spa-like scents of fresh pine. I took deep, deep breaths filling my lungs. It smelt like nostalgia and new beginnings.

I lay out the damp foliage across my kitchen floor, portioning it out so each person received their share. Occasionally my deer-like dog would hop between the bundles, her nose deep amongst the leaves, intrigued by all the new smells. I stabbed a sharp blade into the thick plastic bag of moss, the knife easily sliced it open and revealed green, earthy guts. Bugs and beasties made their escape as I started to pull apart clumps of moss.

A seed of excitement started to take root as I dropped off bags of foliage and moss to my friends. A day later, when they all joined the Zoom call I came alive.

‘You could do this. Like as a job,’ a friend said, as I was showing everyone how to tie a buoyant bow for their wreaths. I was years deep into a marketing career. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy either.

Three months later I got the call. I’d been running a bath, I’d poured in too many bubbles and had stripped to my underwear.

‘This looks like the end, Sarah,’ My mum told me. I don’t know how I replied.

Clinging to the side of the toilet bowl, my knees stinging from the uncomfortable tiles, vomit and tears poured out of me. Minutes and then hours and then days stretched by, waiting by my phone. COVID restrictions still loomed and I wasn’t allowed to travel back home.

I kept thinking of all those times she’d said: ‘Don’t come and visit me. Get on with your life. I don’t want you to see me when I’m old and wrinkly.’ She was so earnest.

I’d burst out laughing. ‘You’re already old and wrinkly, Grandma,’ She tutted, then dissolved into laughter.

Against my will I was obeying her wishes.

Long ago I’d offered to make her a heart-shaped floral tribute, overflowing with pale pink, frothy carnations. Her favourite flower. I joined a friend from a floristry college in her Derbyshire studio. She worked on my Grandma’s casket spray, brimming with purple alliums and fuschia snapdragons. Beside her I fluffed out the carnations. I kept blinking away tears, but my fingertips fizzled with delight. This is where I belonged, amongst flowers. Mere weeks after her funeral I was hunting for a part time job. The seed of excitement the wreath workshop planted in me was sprouting rapidly. Part time employment would give me the chance to grow a small business. If my Grandma was still here, I knew she would be encouraging me.

At the end of 2021 I stood in front of a class of 14, most of them strangers.

‘Thanks so much for coming along,’ I said. ‘I can’t wait to see how each of your wreaths turn out.’ A bead of sweat ran down the side of my face and my mouth felt dry. But the smile wouldn’t leave my face. I’d spent sleepless nights refreshing the Eventbrite page on my phone, panicking tickets wouldn’t sell. But they had.

This year’s wedding season began in an explosion of pinks, blues and yellows. Buckets were filled to the brim with cheerful chamomile and wiggly-stemmed poppies. As I constructed a bridal bouquet I noticed a polaroid pinned to my wall. Me and my Grandma; I’m holding a bottle of cheap champagne and she’s raising a full glass. It felt like she was toasting my new beginnings. A few weeks later I typed out the resignation letter for my part time job. Here begins the next step in my floral adventure.