My grandmother’s garden was laid out in neat, wide rows of color framed by golden brown swaths of rumpled soft earth. I came to think of her garden as the natural order of things. Precise, orderly, everything “just so”. Yielding abundant results we all appreciated, her rows of vegetables were astounding in their perfection. Then there was the fruit. She grew grapes for jams and jellies. Berries for pure delight. Fruit trees dotted her small property. An enormously grand mulberry tree presided over the driveway near the back corner of the two-story white farm house. The crabapple tree in the farthest corner of the field was our favorite for climbing. As children we passed slow, sweet summer afternoons in its gnarled, rough branches, mostly searching for that one elusive fruit that would – on closest inspection because Grandma no longer sprayed this ancient tree – prove to be unblemished enough to eat. We played games of dare. Who would go furthest out on a limb; highest up in the tree?
My dad had three brothers and a sister. Which meant lots of cousins for us! Holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas meant the whole clan gathering at Grandma’s house. But on Sundays, each family took their turn at Grandma’s house for dinner. On our Sundays, after losing the requisite Checkers game with Grandpa, we were free to roam until called to wash up for dinner. After the dishes were washed, dried and put away, my favorite part of the day was finally here. That’s when my dad would say those magical words: “So. How is the garden doing?”
And that’s what I’d been anticipating the entire day – seeing Grandma’s garden. The flowers. I never tired of hearing her recite those far-away sounding names. Canterbury bells, pansies, snapdragons, poppies, calendulas, daisies, columbines, zinnias, cockscombs, foxglove, delphiniums, peonies, cosmos. She seemed to have them all. As I looked at them, as she called their names out loud, I felt myself transported to some far off place in time where a mysterious person was strolling down the rows of an endless garden, filled with every flower imaginable. With pen and paper. Bestowing grand sounding names on some. Simple or whimsical names on others. Pulling names down from the blue tinted air. Sketching and recording. My imagination soared with the hearing of those names. It was baffling to me then that no matter how I struggled (vainly) to memorize multiplication tables, learning all of the flower names came as natural as a duck taking to water. It was in my blood.
In the summer Grandma’s table always had a bowl of nasturtiums abundantly overflowing in neon oranges, yellows and reds. Lily of the valley peeked out of shaded borders along the north side of the house. Every spring tulips, daffodils, hyacinth and crocus greeted the still icy air, defying the endless Michigan winters. The whole family seemed to speak flowers. Or perhaps because I was so immersed in gardening at a young age, I just thought they did! Regardless, it was our common bond and it was our way of life to share this passion.
As time went on, I took this love and grew with it. My dad noticed my developing enthusiasm and gave me a small square plot by the back door that faced the afternoon sun. It had been filled with mint, but he helped me pull it all out, amend the soil and prepare it to grow flower seeds of my own choice. Off to the Feed & Seed we went where I selected a few packets of petunia seeds. Reading the directions diligently and under his watchful direction, I planted those seeds, thinned the seedlings and nurtured the tiny plants until they became an overflowing, beautiful bed of brilliantly fragrant blossoms. I patiently weeded, deadheaded and tended my little flower bed. And then an unexpected reward came one day after school. My dad had entered my flower bed in a city-wide garden contest. And I had won the junior division with my simple little back-door bed of petunias!
Wherever I’ve lived, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, California, the native flowers have always attracted my attention. I’ve learned their names. I’d watch for them on roadsides and roamed the garden centers for flowers to plant in my yard. For color. For texture. For variety. Some years I gathered seeds in the autumn and replanted them in the spring. Other years I focused on perennials – bleeding heart, cone flowers, iris, hollyhocks, coral bells – and discovered that old-timey pleasure of welcoming my old friends back as in the spring they’d push up through the damp, dark earth. Reaching hungrily for blue skies and warm sun. Many times those flowers, roots, and bulbs came from someone else’s garden, shared happily with a dose of encouragement and a bundle of common love.
My gardens grew in many different places and in many different ways. And I grew with them. Changing. Appreciating more and more the heritage I was gifted. A love of color. A love of growing. A love of flowers. A love of family.
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