My Childhood of Gardens

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.

I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.

Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.

My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.

And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.

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The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.

There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.

Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.

I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.

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How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.

There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.

I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.

How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.

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