Looking down, I see my white baby shoes stepping on black soil and green grass. A yellow sulphur butterfly floats above my head, and bumblebees buzz nearby. My grandmother is on her knees in the garden digging with a shovel. I try to run on stubby little feet, but fall to to my knees in the cool, soft earth. I begin to cry, and strong hands set straight again. A soft kiss lands on the top of my head, and sure fingers wipe baby tears from my eyes. Then, her index finger touches the end of my nose. I look up into beautiful brown eyes crinkled at the sides by the sun.
“Come here, I want to show you something,” she says. She takes my hand and walks me over to where an earthworm wriggles in soil she’s turned over. A trowel is nearby, and I want to dig in the dirt too, and she lets me although it’s where she was going to place a transplant.
I’m fascinated by the wriggly worm, but then I smell something sweet, and I wander over to a large elm tree where a red rose clambers up the side and spills down into the branches.
She calls my name, and I turn. She stands in an old, but ironed dress with apron, hands on hips, smiling at me. When I run into her hug, she smells of flowers, starch, soap and all the sweet things grandmothers are made of.
This is my first garden memory, and even though I was only two years old, I remember it as if it were yesterday. I can still see the small white house with a green roof, roses climbing the black iron porch railings, and the porch swing which I painted the summer after my senior year of high school.
I see the back sleeping porch, where my grandmother ripened her tomatoes and sat her pies to cool. I hear Grandma Nita coming out, the screen door slamming behind her while she wipes her floured hands on her apron and then runs them through her curly black hair hanging in sweaty ringlets around her face.
Behind her sits the chicken house, the three apple trees (red delicious), the vegetable garden and the compost pile. In the center of the compost grows that huge red rose into the elm tree. Later, after my grandfather died, I discovered the rose is all which remains of her flower garden. The flower garden and the vegetable patch sat side by side for many years, but one spring she walked outside to find Grandpa Art tilling up the flower bed and turning it back to earth. When asked why, he said flowers were unnecessary, and she had plenty to do with the vegetables. You see, in his world vegetables were a worthy exercise, flowers didn’t make food and were expendable.
She cried, but she didn’t challenge him. I remember he was pretty mean, and he raised an angry son who later became my father.
The flower garden was long gone by the time I toddled after her in my white shoes, but it remained in my cellular memory.
Today, friends stopped by to visit, and a new friend asked how I was able to keep so many gardens by myself, and how they came to be. With her questions, this memory re-surfaced.
My gardens are large, floriferous and bounteous. The plants are held in a formal structure, but I let them spill over into the pathways. By July, the entire garden is a mass of overgrown plants and more flowers than anything else. Flowers even spill into the vegetable garden, some because I plant them there. Others, like many of the herbs, I let go to seed. The flowers feed the butterflies and other small pollinators with their nectar.
I think I plant the flower garden as I do for her, perhaps, to make up for the flower garden she lost.
Vegetables are food for the body, but flowers sustain the soul. I know they nourish me.