Decades ago, I had the good fortune to attend Smith College. Smith is nestled in the Pioneer Valley in the Berkshires of Northwestern, MA. I remember reluctantly visiting her beautiful all-women’s campus with my dad when I was looking at colleges and surprisingly feeling home. Maybe this was because the college’s hallowed ivy-covered buildings echoed the 3 generations who came before me.
My great grandfather, Osmond Robert, headed the Smith French Department in the 1920s. His daughters, Evelyn, Yvonne and my grandmother Madeline all attended Smith. My grandparents met in the valley and my father, John Lawrence Wynne, Jr. was born at the Cooley Dickenson Hospital in Northampton in the late 1930s.
Smith College was where I learned to think like a woman, independent, without self-consciousness. The women I met my first week at Smith are still my dearest friends.
I have an annual tradition with my daughter Celeste. Every March we drive up to Northampton to see the Bulb Show at the Smith Greenhouse by Paradise Pond. Somehow, when we are on campus, she seems to embody a similar spark that I did my first time there…sort of a knowing that this is ancestral ground. That it matters.
This weekend, we parked on Green Street, in our regular spot, in front of my dear Tyler House. We walked through campus on pathways lined by 3 foot walls of snow. Underneath, we knew the gardens were sleeping. A magnolia’s fuzzy tight buds caught our eye against a piercing blue sky. Harbinger of spring.
Entering the greenhouses early, we skirted the bulb show (members only before 10am) to tour the outer rooms. After the relentless winter we had this year, walking into The Tropical House, we were bathed in humid jungle air. Palms towered above our heads.
I felt my senses slowly ignite…wake up…wake up.
Smell. White orchids speckled with red cascaded. Leaning in, the scent was a faint vanilla, like a secret only knowable to those who dare to ask.
Sight. Green. Looking up at the palm fronds, the luscious array of greens, misty in the heat melted my wintry eyes. I felt my body relax and click into a primordial happiness just by seeing green.
Sound. Past the tropical room there is a cooler greenhouse. The sound of running water reminded us that we had to visit the Buddha sitting by the waterfall there. And we sat too.
Touch. Lining the walls and ceilings of a hallway were smooth beautiful rectangular samples of woods from around the world. Celeste touched ebony…dark, black, smooth.
This was all before we even entered the bulb show.
It feels like a vivid dream now. We walked past tulips of every color, fragrant hyacinth, narcissus, forsythia. Swimming in an ocean of color. The old glass and wrought iron ceiling vent cranked open letting cool winter air waft in. A white flower with water droplets on its delicate petals captivated Celeste.
Experiencing the flowers is always amazing, but for me, what is almost better is watching the people, especially my daughter, be sparked by this beauty. Contemplate, just for a moment, a flower. Simple. Perfect. Decades of people have appreciated the simple beauty of the natural world in these greenhouses.
I remember during one visit, when Celeste was quite little, I noticed a blind man holding a friend’s arm, touring the bulb show. He appeared just as enthralled as we were. What were the layers of his experience? The smells and sounds heightened, could he hear water dropping on flower petals? Is this how he shaped his vision of such a magic place?
Walking back out into a winter landscape, sun gave way to huge fluffy snowflakes that we attempted to catch on our tongues. How did they taste? What did they feel like? What shapes were the crystals? How did the snow smell on my daughter’s sweet rosy cheeks? I will never forget that smell.
Did my grandmother Madeline catch snowflakes on her tongue on that same path decades ago? These are the sensorial layers that create memory.
Until next time, slow down and experience the layers of the senses…even if it means putting some fresh cut flowers on your breakfast table. Beauty inspires. CREATE.