Thursday, April 01, 2010
I grew up hearing tales of my great-grandmother's miraculous gardening skills. I have vague memories of visiting her at her tiny little cottage, her shiny red Thunderbird parked in the driveway, the house compact and square, but no actual recollection of the inside of the house itself. Instead, the backyard looms large in my mind. Walking out the back door of this place was a little like going through the wardrobe in the Narnia books. The yard itself stretched past where my eyes could see, far behind the house itself, and was bisected by Gram's greenhouse. Everywhere you looked there were pots of flowers, staked vegetables, olive and pear and apple trees. The sweaty greenhouse was packed full of seedlings and little clay pots and Gram's fingernails were always short, squared-off, and housed more dirt than I thought possible.
As she aged, she resisted a move to an assisted-living complex mightily. Her sturdy Ukrainian frame, all 4'11" of it, was a force to be reckoned with. She simply couldn't conceive of living in a place without dirt and plants. Finally, a compromise was discovered. The 20-story building in downtown Springfield where she would have an apartment had a flat roof. She could have a portion of it for a roof garden. Everything would have to be in pots, but she would be allowed to work her magic up there. I often wonder whether they knew what they were in for, but I suspect they had never imagined the likes of Gram. Within months, she had appropriated the entire footprint of the roof. She grew gum trees, olives, fruit and berries. Pots of every size filled the roof with only slim paths between for watering and tending the plants. It was a virtual jungle. She was up there two or three times a day. When she passed her year anniversary at the residence, you could spot her building by the foliage rising into the sky from the roof as you came into the downtown core.
My grandparents once told me the story of the time they took Gram with them on a visit to the Holy Land. She was a devout Catholic and it had always been her dream to visit just once. They treated her to a week-long sojourn and my grandmother was horrified to discover that everywhere they went Gram was pinching 'starts' from all of the plants. Having lived in the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon for most of her life, she was astonished by the varieties of plants that grew in this arid land and was determined to bring some home with her. My grandparents pleaded with her to stop, noting the presence of heavily armed soldiers everywhere and feeling certain that they would be arrested or stopped at customs. Gram capitulated and stopped picking leaves from every plant they passed. Or so they thought.
Six months after they returned, we came to visit and she proudly escorted us up to the roof garden and displayed her collection of Holy Land plants. From simple leaf starts, she had managed to create a lush corner souvenir of her trip. My grandmother nearly fainted. Gram just beamed.
I am certain that it is her spirit coming through me that gives me such satisfaction as I squat to dig through the soil in my yard and prune wayward branches off of the trees in my yard. I often wish I had her talents and feel frustrated with my own efforts but for today, I've decided that simply taking pleasure in gardening is enough. I don't have to be a superstar. I can just dig.