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Memories Bloom in Spring Garden

Clusters of white daffodils burst into bloom in my front yard last week, defying weather that has delivered more cloudbursts than sun breaks this month. Along the soggy banks of my driveway, they soften the damages of a harsh winter and summon memories of my mother--Goldie Mary Surmon Scott. That’s Mrs. Scott to you.

I smile as I write her full name. I still can hear her unfurl it like a coat of arms: married name, birth name, and a first name limited to use by family. Even with family, she eschewed the intimacies of “mama” or “nana.” She was “Mother” or “Grandmother” to her offspring.

Growing up on the hardscrabble plains of South Dakota, Goldie Mary Surmon learned early in life to respect the power bestowed by a name. When she stepped to the front of a country school classroom at age 18, the formality of “Miss Surmon” sustained the precarious distance between a young teacher and her students.

A few years later, as a married woman, “Mrs. Scott“ brought respect in the small Minnesota community where Mr. Scott managed the power plant. And when Mr. Scott died in a work related accident just 10 years after giving his bride a new name, “Mrs. Scott” safeguarded a young widow raising two children alone.

“Mrs. Scott” went back to the classroom then, teaching two generations of Lebanon, OR middle school students in social studies classes to name the countries of a changing world while rejecting a name change for herself. “Mrs. Scott” conferred a strong identity—a stability that Goldie Scott alone could not attain. It injected a buffer against the lonely responsibilities of widowhood. I was too young to understand the protective armor lifted in that title, but not too young to shiver in the chill of a formality that rebuffed casual intimacy.

By the time that “Mrs.” fell out of style as a standard form of address in contemporary usage, I was a Mrs. myself. I rarely used the title. First name casualness had pushed titles aside in a trend my mother bucked for years. It embarrassed me, those years, her rigid hold on formalities, even after she retired from the classroom and mixed with peers of other generations in church and community groups.

When I accompanied her to the grocery store on filial visits, I didn’t recognize her stubborn formality as a framework that bolstered the public image of a professional woman who had aged into the anonymity of life beyond husband, children, and career. Pity the naïve former student, now grown and installed as the local pharmacist or as head of the garden club, who greeted her brightly with “How ya’ doin’, Goldie?” Her answer came in a silent pursing of lips and a crisp straightening of shoulders.

Eventually, though, even that image faded as she softened into Goldie, the old woman on the corner of Third and Mary with a yard full of colorful flowers.

She moved to this lot in 1952, two years after my father died. Those early years left little time for landscape artistry, but the farm girl in her roots pulled Goldie Mary Surmon Scott to the soil on weekends, tucking bulbs into planters and pushing holly cuttings into the ground beside the garage.

Retirement freed her to dig deeper into the earth, bringing to bloom the love of gardening that kept her grounded through difficult years. A profusion of bulbs and bushes flourished in the border around her property. Leftovers took root in a backyard garden. Nothing got thrown out.

Early daffodils brought the admiration of friends and neighbors, who then lauded the roses that followed, and exclaimed at the showy parade of dahlias, day lilies and chrysanthemums that cushioned the close of summer. Along with flowers, a new identity blossomed in her garden.

People parked at the curb to seek advice on planting or pruning. Neighbors stopped to discuss nutrients and watering schedules. Every Saturday from spring until fall she circled her yard clipping flowers to fill two bouquets for the front of her church.

In her late-80s, she would rise in the morning and make the rounds with a battered broomstick in one hand. Still mindful of her image, she chose the stability of a household tool over the hint of infirmity conferred by a cane or walker.

She’d head out again when I came to visit, leaning on an arm for support while alerting me to new bulbs and award-winning roses—then awaiting my exclamations of admiration. We’d circle the front and then turn to the back with a pair of pruners in hand. In the back I could cut daffodils in early spring to brighten my Eugene home. The front blooms were off limits for idle clipping. That border was more than color. It was a proud credential of achievements for Goldie Mary Surmon Scott.

When she died in June 2008, one day shy of her 97th birthday, we surrounded her casket with a cascade of roses—the pride of her garden cut from the bushes in the front.

A few days later, I took a spade to the back yard and dug buckets of daffodil bulbs. Two or three hundred bulbs, I suppose. I buried them in the clay of my front yard. Each spring they emerge with straight stature and clear purpose. I delight in the memories they open—a strong, resilient tribute to Goldie Mary Surmon Scott. That’s Mother to me.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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