Family Roots

Flowers don’t last, but memories do.

jane sanders illustrations

My 97-year-old grandfather lives in a neat and orderly subdivision of town houses that all look very much
like one another.

Although he amazes his doctors with his sharp mind, bone-dry wit and stubbornly good health (precious few 96-year-olds who are admitted to the hospital with pneumonia ever come home, much less one week later), he has a rare genetic syndrome that, in his old age, has left him wheelchair-bound.

Like him, many of my grandfather’s neighbors are retirees. Unlike him, they are, of course, much younger and more able-bodied and therefore able to devote their golden years to pastimes such as gardening.

Thus, while my grandfather’s lawn has remained basically the same generic grass-and-shrubbery affair for the 21 years he’s lived there, the neighbors’ seem to have grown more elaborate each time I visit. No matter how microscopic the lot, it seems there is always room for one more annual border, Bradford pear, resin cherub, garden flag, koi pond, windsock, iron bench, vine-covered trellis or gazing ball. Occasionally, some people take it upon themselves to beautify a bit of Granddaddy’s yard –– planting flowers around his mailbox or painting his front door candy-apple red. Whenever that happens, I have to wryly wonder if it was strictly an act of kindness (his caring neighbors are one reason he’s managed to live alone until just recently) or if the industrious good Samaritans had simply run out of places to indulge their creative urges at home.

Knowing this communal zeal for landscaping would not have escaped the attention of a thrifty Great Depression survivor –– and that he would probably have something amusing to say about it –– I threw out a remark one day like, “Looks like there are some avid gardeners in the neighborhood.”

“Yes,” Granddaddy replied with a sort of incredulous chuckle, “but people around here don’t grow anything.
They just buy plants and stick them in the dirt. Then after a while, they pull those up and buy some more. I don’t call that gardening.”

I already knew exactly what he was thinking about –– or rather, whom. To his late wife of more than 50 years, gardening was not a matter of expedience or curb appeal or keeping up with the Joneses. Growing things was one of the passions of my grandmother’s life.

My grandmother’s joy in all things botanical was literally etched on her face: Her fair redhead’s complexion stayed perpetually freckled from tending day lilies and pulling weeds and staking tomato plants. Even indoors, she could often be found fussing over her large collection of African violets –– a species notoriously difficult to cultivate –– or flipping through gardening magazines. I can still see her Sally Hansen peony-pink fingernail tapping on a glossy photo of some mail-order perennial in Southern Living as she remarked absently, “Now isn’t that pretty?” 

I honestly don’t know where my grandmother’s plants came from. This was before the days of big-box retailers with their acres of wave petunias and cypress mulch. She must have bought some from local nurseries, but I suspect she raised many from seeds, bulbs or cuttings from other people’s gardens. There was little she enjoyed as much as trips to visit her sisters-in-law, a widow and a spinster who lived together in a century-old house set amongst heirloom camellias and irises. She would arrive bearing bulbs and cuttings from her yard and return home, giddy, with some of theirs.

By far her greatest horticultural legacy –– in my book, anyway –– was taming the steep acre of lakefront property where she and my grandfather first retired. When they arrived, I believe the yard of their two-bedroom cabin was little more than a scooped-out ledge on the side of a rocky hill. By the time they left 16 years later, it was a showplace. The flower beds my grandmother created were so productive they provided all the arrangements for her youngest son’s rehearsal dinner and wedding.

But then one year my grandmother didn’t feel very much like working in the yard.

She suffered from mysterious stomach pain and lost a lot of weight. Meanwhile, my grandfather, seven years her senior, was growing ever more unsteady on his feet. Reluctantly, they faced the fact that a house located three hours from their nearest child –– a house deep in the woods on a sharply sloping lot that required a lot of maintenance –– was no place for an aging couple.

So they moved to the practical town house in the suburbs with the easy-maintenance dab of grass and shrubs. No doubt my grandmother was scheming to get her hands into that patch of soil as soon as she got back on her feet. Instead, she died two months after moving in, shortly before her 70th birthday.

It’s ironic to me now that what certainly would have been one of the most spectacular yards on the block is actually one of the plainest, the comparatively barren landscape a constant reminder of my grandmother’s long absence. I wonder how she might have reacted to the local “landscape-a-palooza” or today’s instant gratification, throw-away, hire-it-done, drive-through gardening mentality. Honestly, I think she would have loved every bit of it because she would be surrounded by the beauty that made her happy.

All I can say for sure is that, in so many ways, my grandmother brought color to the world that I never really appreciated until it was gone.
 

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