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Sometimes a weird sunflower in Burnaby is not the whole story

Newfound passion for flowers helps Burnaby man cope after the loss of his beloved mom

It’s fall and that time of year when local newspapers get calls about all manner of giant vegetables and weird plants growing in people’s gardens.

I answered a call like that last week.

 “I have something in my garden, a flower, I want to talk about,” a man said enigmatically in a voicemail message.

He said it was a thing that hadn’t happened “for years and years.”

So when I called him back and found out it was a sunflower with “triplets,” I was underwhelmed.

I thought he meant the sunflower had three heads, which isn’t all that unusual.

What he had turned out to be a little rarer – a very tall sunflower with what looked like conjoined-triplets for a head.

But the flower wasn’t the story anyway.

The story was the man’s love for his mother.

Samiha El-Ezzi was the rock of her family, according to 57-year-old Khaled Ezzo, one of her 13 children.

When he was a boy in 1980s civil-war-torn Lebanon, he remembers bombs dropping near his home and his mother moving all the mattresses so the family could all sleep together in the safest place in the house in case it got hit.

Later, as a refugee in Canada in the early 1990s, she didn’t have the financial means to bring over all her children, some of whom had been scattered by the war. (Ezzo had spent eight months alone in a refugee camp in Germany when he was just 15.)

But she pleaded with the authorities until she got her way.

“When she come to Canada, she like the peace,” he said. “She start to say, ‘I want you all here one by one.’ She got us all here.”

In her new country, she kept the family together – cooking, resolving family disputes, dispensing wisdom.

For the last seven years, she lived practically next door to Ezzo’s Arcola Street home and would walk over almost every day for tea in the backyard, he said.

His brothers and their families would drop by too, filling the yard with some of the family’s 32 Canadian-born kids.

“They all come with their mom and dad to see grandma. We have big, big meeting every day,” Ezzo said. “This is where she like to be.”

When his mother died in April 2019, Ezzo was “destroyed.”

 Then his father died of COVID-19 in December 2020.

“My life collapsed,” he said.

The big family gatherings shrank to the occasional visit from a brother here and there.

Looking for a way to honour their mother, however, Ezzo and his brothers created a memorial site for her near the corner where she used to sit and drink her tea with her children and grandchildren.

The yard was pretty bare then, according to Ezzo; even the grass was patchy, so he decided to plant a fig tree and some roses near the granite stone engraved with her name.

Ezzo said he had never wanted to be a “garden guy,” but those first few plants sent his life on a new course.

Over the last two years, gardening has become a passion and a way to deal with his loss.

“The gardening relieve my pain,” he said. “I work half an hour. I never think, never stress, never pain. I feel like I’m somewhere else. I’m newborn.”

The front- and backyards are now dotted with flowers, bushes and trees he has acquired, some through purchase and some donated by other gardeners with plants that have caught Ezzo’s eye.

Earlier this year, he dropped a few sunflower seeds into the ground for the first time.

For him, the rare flower they produced is a fitting tribute to his mother.

It was also the perfect chance to call someone up and tell them about her.

“She was the best mother ever,” he said.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor