Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Garden Childhood

A favorite story; a sort of real life experience

My childhood was bounded and enlarged by gardens, smaller or bigger, private and public. I thrived where all things flourished with restraint– or with less. It fed my earliest poetic leanings, and reminded me daily how the universe near and far throbs with life.

My first childhood home on the corner of Trenton and Lamb was a rambling two-story that housed seven. The yard had pear and apple trees from which the family picked–or gathered from ground–fruits for canning or salads or desserts and out-of-hand munching. The white and pink blossoms shook in Missouri-humid breezes. Flowers lined the yard with rainbow colors.

In the breezeway, I was cradled in one arm of the one-handed woman who ironed for us and more with the one she had once a week. She sang as she rhythmically pressed the items, cushiony body swaying. The clean, fresh scent of laundered, warm cotton fabric still gives me happiness. As do trees and blossoms.

Not too distant from our house was my paternal grandparents’ tidy white clapboard abode, with a well-tended a kitchen garden in the back. It seemed a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, scents and flavors set within a rectangular white picket fence on a gently rolling yard (beyond rippled more grass, greening a hilly terrain). The gate was not too large for me to reach to unlatch alone at first, but I grew. Over the years I’d make my way down even rows of tomatoes and potatoes, lettuce, squash, strawberries and watermelon, snap peas and sometimes a few tall stalks of corn; and between pansies and petunias, marigolds (averting pesky bugs), zinnias and rose bushes. I knelt down to put my face to the growing things, breathed in deeply a bouquet of tangy, earthy and sweet; it all smelled good and happy. I dug into rich soil, found worms in hand, beetles creeping across my palms. Bright butterflies drifted about as birds called out. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened porch door, paring knife in hand or a perhaps a bowl and say my name. Though reluctant to leave such a half-secret world, those nodding flowers and mouth-watering berries I popped into my mouth and the bug-watching, I answered obediently. We would sit on the steps and shuck corn, soft silk sticking to my fingers a bit. A quiet, industrious woman, she and I got closer during such tasks–such as peeling potatoes and finally mastering the art of removing a peel in one long curl or washing and cutting up strawberries or removing corn husk faster.

My erudite grandfather was not avoidant of manual labor, and though he seemed more gentleman than small time farmer he would hoe, plant and weed, as well, his shabby straw hat perched atop luxurious white hair.

After moving to Michigan, those spring and summer visits were more coveted, and felt like strong sunshine radiant within me the whole year.

When older, there was an indoor botanical garden we visited when seeing relatives, an Art Deco-style feat of glass architecture of the Jewel Box in St. Louis, MO. Trees turned and twisted up to the ceiling; flowers were vibrant and exotic to me; in one display I imagined myself lost in South America. The light that streamed from every glass panel was enchanting; it was an entire world, removed. I would take off to explore, immerse myself in the lushness. Any visit was an event and once yearly not enough. It remains a display greenhouse of primarily flowers, and is on the National Historic Register.

In Michigan our house was smallish with an open, sloping back yard surrounded by pine trees in the back with only one small cherry tree, to the relief of my mother–no fallen and rotting fruit. But an impressively huge lot to the north was entirely a garden.

Mr. Benfer’s garden. He and his wife owned the lot but lived on the south side of our place. It was like the countryside had taken a detour and stopped, then put in roots. Those peonies! That rhubarb! They had rows and rows of corn, tomatoes, green beans and sugar peas, pumpkins and other squash, cucumbers, tons of strawberry plants and things I’d not known of before–my mother, who had grown up on a large farm, happily explained it all. The roses and irises, tulips and more drew me like the bees to varied delights.

I longed to hold them close and bury my nose. To get out there and pick a few things. But Mr. Benfer’s garden was not my grandparents’. It was more like Mr. McGregors’ garden and we were the bothersome rabbits: we were strictly forbidden entry. They were not fond of children nor even that much of adults. But we were seven and often inadvertently crossed boundaries during recreation–badminton and croquet, basketball and other ball games. Those balls, birdies and plastic darts ended up in that garden more than we’d hoped. My bother was a budding archer; stray arrows were trickiest to reclaim. I suspected he shot badly on purpose, on occasion, at a plant. (I hoped not the lovely rabbits hopping about with boldness– until shooed out with hoe. Like the famed McGregor story, I mused.)

There was a single heavy wire strung as a boundary between our yard and that lot, no more than a couple feet high–easy to get over or under. Which we managed fine. Or we could just step into the back of the garden which opened up onto a small tree nursery that also extended behind our yard. But I was the youngest so warned to stay back and watch a brother’s or sister’s antics. I was a designated guard, and kept an eye out for the Benfers –or our parents. How I longed for a sumptuous berry, a juicy cherry tomato. If lucky I might get one from the siblings, then sworn to secrecy. In truth, the mischievous excursions didn’t happen often; we knew what was right and wrong. And would also be scolded soundly. And several times my siblings got found out and were sternly spoken to, then commanded to avoid further trespassing. It didn’t fully deter anyone– the thrill of sneaking about and escaping without being seen was more fun than actual “borrowing” of produce. Stealing, though, was an actual sin.

Mr. Benfer was not a generous or easy-going man. Very tall and a little stooped even when younger, balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed darting eyes. He emitted a low grunt if we dared speak to him, which I often did in hopes of making things friendlier. His wife might nod at me. Her big hats wavered about as she bent over the rows–their backs were bent for hours, it seemed. As I grew older I knew the work got taxing but I still hoped to taste the fruits of their labor. At times I was left on my own so managed to sneak over, snatch a warm, sweeter than anything strawberry. But most often I just stood at the back and looked and sniffed the ripening air, and marveled at how they could bring forth such bounty, such beauty. Despite being unfriendly, possibly unhappy people. I resolved to not trod upon their ground after my siblings left, one after the other, for college when I was twelve. It took restraint.

The flowers were stunning, and some fell to the side of our yards. Their irises were tall, happy sentinels, daffodils bright and lemony, and sunflowers were giants amid burgeoning rose bushes whose perfumes layered the air several feet away in June’s softer heat. The tulips–my birthday flower as well as forsythia– were sturdy and graceful in rainbow hues. I talked to them sometimes in passing as my fingers grazed their petals. And when storms ripped the blooms apart I felt almost forlorn without them to greet. At least the few flowers that grew around our house were more shielded.

Mrs. Benfer loosened up a little at us as time passed, despite us being chased out a few times, Mr.’s spade shaken in our direction. Mrs. even came to our door now and then with rhubarb, my mother’s favorite for pies, which I cared for little. But small bunches of peonies or roses that were brought by were a joy to behold and arrange in vases for our dining room table. But Mr. Benfer remained inscrutable and humorless. His garden was his true love; people were not his forte, perhaps. But what wonders he wrought with his wife, and that said a great deal.

Pathway in Monet’s Garden at Giverny by Claude Monet

The other neighborhood garden was tended by my mother’s best friend, a multi-skilled woman with whom I stayed after school for several years, as my mother taught elementary school– but not mine. My second mother, Winetta Titus. Opening her French doors to a blooming yard was heavenly. The birds loved it there, too. We’d sit on the patio and watch and listen as she taught me their names and habits. She, too, raised vegetables, but it was the flowers that drew me in. She’d cut bouquets for me to take home. Winetta’s presence was a gift to me during my growing up; her garden was lively poems of love and wonder, of generosity.

The last garden to note this time is Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, where almost all my childhood and youth were spent. Herbert H. Dow was the founder of Dow Chemical, the mainstay of Midland’s employment and industrial leadership, and a generous giver of money and other gifts. His home included a lot of land; Dow Gardens is a 110 acre parcel filled with botanical offerings. The grounds are breathtaking: pretty bridges, water features, perennials and annuals, pines and other old, sturdy trees. One can stroll at one’s leisure or rest there for hours.

Since it is located beside the library, it was a perfect destination. Books and flowers, butterflies and all manner of other insects working away among the shady trees, a stream and pond. It was a sanctuary as our northern four seasons changed; an open-air school for my searching mind; a space to gather casually with others. It helped shape my sensibilities and preference for the outdoors. My hometown was and is nothing if not beautiful–this is noted with gratitude despite dealing with plenty of hard challenges there and then moving away to rarely return.

I miss those childhood gardens. I suppose every child is intimate with enchantments–or should be. I learned much by lingering in them, paying close attention … to bountiful natural design, the curious life cycles, weather’s impact, pleasures of discovery The patience needed. The mystery revealed. Our place in the scheme of things earthly, how connected our biological reality is to botany and other sciences in basic ways.

But mostly it was the allurements of nature amid proof of God’s genius that swept me up, carried me to deeper realms. Such experiences probed and savored seemed like the most virtuous moments. There was safety in that despite the vagaries of natural events. There was a routine reassurance in the regeneration of life. And it was a thrill to embrace even small bits of the immense complexity of nature’s ways and means.

A garden, after all, is synonymous with hope, a place for faith to flourish–even when not grand. Even if you plant a few tiny seeds in a small clay pot and see them produce more life.