Old Irises, Like Old Letters, Connect Generations

This spring brought some familiar, old friends back to greet me – the sparse, tattered tulips planted by a previous owner decades ago, the allium plants, with their lovely, purple, orb-shaped flowers, and a small patch of Siberian Squill, which I have been nurturing now for several years. But the greatest joy this spring, came from seeing some new friends–a group of short, yellow irises which pushed through the soil in my front garden for the very first time. These heirloom irises, which came into my family some 80 years ago, have moved from state to state, and brought along with them precious family memories.  

Their story began on a small residential lot in Wood Dale, IL. In the early 1940’s, my grandmother planted them by the tiered limestone wall in front of their home. There, they stood at attention in front of the dazzling purple clematis which was supported by a white, wooden trellis. For the next 40 years, these pretty companion plants witnessed countless world and national events, the vagaries of weather conditions, and the happy and sad days of our family history.

After my grandparents died and their house went up for sale, my mother made it a point to dig up a part of the iris patch and to take it home with her. The irises were a simple memento – something she could keep with her to remind her of her happy childhood home.  This was the place where most everything that was significant happened in her young life, including dating my father, her wedding day, and the birth of her first child while my father was away in the Korean War.

It was in the early 1980’s that the iris cuttings would make their way north, where my mother would carefully transplant them by the downspout at the corner of an old brick home on a hobby farm my parents owned in southwestern Wisconsin. She was confident that they would flourish there in the good, rich soil and strong, bright sun. And like clockwork each spring, they would bloom in their subtle shades of creams and yellows and spark fond memories of her childhood home back in Illinois. Many more years passed, and each year, the irises dependably served as the harbinger of spring in this cold and challenging environment. 

When my parents reached their early eighties, it was time to sell the land and move to town where yard work and maintenance would be more manageable. As the date for vacating the property loomed ever closer, it would be my older sister who would remember to dig up these same irises and ensure that they remained a part of our family legacy. Comically almost, the irises were returned to Illinois to be part of my sister’s side garden. And there they flourished for more years until she and her husband moved on to a new home. The irises were not forgotten, however, and were once again dutifully and carefully transplanted into the small front garden of her next home.

After leaving home and living far away for many years, I was unaware of the story of the irises and how they had been moved and cared for over four decades. A year ago, my sister mentioned them in passing. I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her iris patch with me. She immediately agreed. During one of the worst drought years Minnesota has ever had, I transplanted some of the iris cuttings into my own front garden. Over the entire dry summer, I religiously and carefully looked after and watered them. I wondered if they would survive. They often looked like they would give up the ghost and it seemed as though this might be the end of the road for my mementos of the past. In the fall, I crossed my fingers as I covered them with dead leaves and put them to bed for the winter.

After one of the harshest and snowiest winters in Minnesota history, you can imagine my joy at seeing the iris leaves green up and start to grow this spring! All these years – about 80 of them, this simple memento of our loved ones has survived many moves and disruptions because someone was sentimental enough and attentive enough to ensure that the legacy continued.

Which brings me to connecting heirloom iris plants to old family letters….

Old letters only survive because of sentimental and curious hearts. They are saved by one generation for the next as a gesture of love and remembrance so that the stories that go with them can be passed along, too. Someone ensured that these fragile mementos did not get wet or burned or torn or thrown away. Someone made their safe keeping a priority, just as my sister did for us by saving a flower from a garden long since gone so that my grandparents could live on in my heart forever.  

Old family letters and antique family flowers are daily reminders of my lucky life. Old things, carefully preserved, are the threads that connect us.