The Two Harriets: How a Magnolia Plant Helped a Daughter Heal


Every Friday at 5:00 for Happy Hour, I’d go to my Mom Harriet’s (Harriet Number One) home in Toftrees, passing by her beloved magnolia tree as I came and went. We had the best time at Happy Hour. She’d have chardonnay, I’d have Miller Lite, and we’d sit on her red sofa and drink and talk and laugh and dish like schoolgirls. We both treasured that time together. I thought it would go on forever, but it didn’t.

On May 9, 2017, my Mom Harriet, Ann Hellwig Wecker, had just pared the 18th hole at Centre Hills golf course. She went back to her cart, sat down, put her head in her hands, and had a major stroke that took her life four days, six hours, and six minutes later.

This was unexpected. She was in vibrant health, golfing at 90! I lost my best friend, and I was devastated.

The week before she died she came over for Happy Hour at my house. This was not our usual arrangement, but I wanted her to see the progress my husband Rudy and I were making in our new home.

This interested my Mom greatly; we shared a joy in our homes, and a love of beautiful surroundings, both inside and outside. We were passionate about decorating and gardening.

Before Mom came in the door that last Happy Hour at my place, we had to wander my fledgling garden. There, still in its container, was a magnolia tree I’d found.

“See!” I said to my Mom, I got a magnolia, just like you! I’m gonna name her ‘Harriet!’” My Mom approved. So Harriet #1 met Harriet #2.

After the garden tour we went through the house, checking the latest. We were looking out an upstairs window onto the front yard when I asked my Mom, “Don’t you think Harriet the Magnolia would look great right there next to the walk?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. We had our usual fun Happy Hour and then she went home.

The next day I dropped by her house. I didn’t typically drop by my Mom’s, and when I did, it was usually a quick stop.

But this time, because we were both so energized about my new home, we wandered all over, investigating all the spaces that were so dear to her. I’m so glad we did, because the conversation we had that afternoon, about things we loved, was our last. I am grateful that we had the chance, a week before her death, to share our intimate spaces.

Two days later, she pared the 18th, had her stroke, spent some time at the Hershey Medical Center, and then came home to die.

In mid-summer my sister Chris and brother John came to State College to help clean out Mom’s house. Harriet the Magnolia, still in her pot, was waiting for them.

We planted Harriet the Magnolia with Harriet’s ashes in the front yard by the walk; now Harriet rests with Harriet. Into the planting hole we dropped three meaningful objects; a Petosky stone from well-loved family vacations, a golf ball, and a Vogue pattern. Over all was poured a glass of chardonnay. Then my siblings and my husband Rudy and I sat around the newly planted tree, telling Harriet stories and finishing the wine. It was a lovely ceremony.

That summer I began sitting next to Harriet the Magnolia, especially on Friday evenings, sipping a Miller Lite and talking to a plant. Neighbors noticed. But I’d tell the story to those who’d ask, and sometimes to those who didn’t, and that seemed to make it OK.

Once, when I was sitting next to Harriet with my beer, a car drove by and a neighbor yelled, “Hi, Ellen and Harriet!” That cheered me immensely. That summer moved into fall, the weather cooled, and Harriet lost her leaves. My Mom’s birthday was coming up, but I had no Mom.

February 28th, Mom’s birthday. I had been dreading it until…I rebelled. I thought, “I’ve got 364 days to feel sad, I want to celebrate her birthday!” My Mom was big on celebrating. So I invited 10 of her friends for lunch and cake and champagne and chardonnay. I beribboned the dining room and put ribbons on our champagne flutes. The guests came and ate and drank and talked and laughed and we had a great time. When they left, I took the remains of a champagne bottle, the ribbons, and one of my Mom’s journals out to the front yard and sat next to Harriet the Magnolia. If you’d driven by you would have seen me swigging from a champagne bottle, giggling at journal entries, sitting next to a bare shrub decorated with ribbons to which I talked. The day had been so happy, when I’d expected it to be so sad. I still miss my Mom terribly, but this February 28th, we did it again! I called her friends and said, “I’m having another birthday party for my Mom! She can’t make it, but I hope you can!”

And my dear Mom, who wandered my home and rests in my garden was there, enjoying herself. And I finished the party in the front yard, sharing Happy Hour with the two Harriets.

Ellen Slingerland, an avid gardener, sometime cartoonist, and harp therapist, has lived in State College since 1972. This column is coordinated by whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation. 

This article first appeared in the Centre Daily Times on Sunday, March 24, 2019.