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In The Dirt: Grandmothers, Gardening and Grace

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately digging in the dirt. And, given the run on online gardening sites and people at the gardening sections of businesses that are open, I know I am not alone in digging out rocks, cultivating a space so that it is ready for new plants and then getting […]

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately digging in the dirt. And, given the run on online gardening sites and people at the gardening sections of businesses that are open, I know I am not alone in digging out rocks, cultivating a space so that it is ready for new plants and then getting them settled into the ground. All this digging and getting some dirt under the nails in my own backyard brought back some memories of my grandmothers and the important stories they shared with me.

Both of them lived through The Great Depression. One lost her father, my great-grandfather, to the Spanish Flu. Both went through World War II. They also both had gardens in their yards during most of their lives. Those major events, ones that impacted everyone in their communities, shaped who they were. The stories that they shared with me, often while sharing time in their gardens, are now resonated with me in a new way as I’m out digging in my backyard during this current world challenge.

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Ruth, after graduating from high school, needed to get a job. Like the rest of the family, , she needed to financially contribute so that there was food on the table and a home to go to. She was going into the job market during the height of the Great Depression. She decided, after going after a number of jobs, to get a job at a local shoe factory. She dressed up, walked down to speak to the person that was in charge of hiring and was told there were no jobs and there wouldn’t be any in the near future. Instead of walking out, she sat down. She stayed there all day. She was polite and quiet, but she stayed seated where they could see her. When they closed for the day, she walked home. The next day she went back and was told there still wasn’t a job. She said she understood and sat down and stayed until the end of the work day. The third day she got up, got dressed, went back to the factory and again was told there were no jobs and she should just go home. She said she would wait and sat herself down in the very same seat she had sat the day before. At the end of that third day the hiring manager finally came out and offered her a job. This was a great lesson in persistence for me. I remember asking “Weren’t you bored, Grandma?” She answered that sometimes you need to be OK with being bored and waiting, particularly when it’s for something you really need or want to happen.

She also shared that by having a garden, I would always remember this lesson. Sometimes where you want to plant something, whether it’s a flower or a vegetable garden, it seems like it is impossible. There are too many rocks. I don’t have the time. I don’t have good soil. It doesn’t seem like the plants are growing fast enough. It will take effort to make it a good place to even start a garden. It’s going to mean a lot of weeding. I may need to find ways to keep away rabbits, deer and other animals that will destroy what I am growing. But if it’s the right place and you put in the work, you may be surprised at what can happen. Even when it seems almost impossible or is very frustrating. Sometimes plants die. Sometimes a deer has chewed up your favorite flowers overnight. But she reminded me that you don’t get a garden without understanding you’ll face problems. She said that I needed to visualize what I was creating and hold on to that through all the setbacks and frustrations. No garden bears flowers or vegetables in a day. No garden blooms without a lot of sweat equity, patience and persistence.

My dad’s mom, Beryl, lost her father when she was just 7 years old. He had fallen ill and each member of the family, including her, had to sit beside his bed in case he needed anything. She shared with me what it felt like being there during the night, when it was her turn to stand watch next to the fireplace and watch her father’s very labored breathing. She knew he was very ill, even at that age. She told me about wrapping up in her mother’s shawl to comfort herself and how much she disliked being there, having to be brave. They were already poor, but with my great grandfather’s death due to the Spanish Flu, things got much more difficult. My grandmother, though at the top of her class, had to leave school at 14. Her first job was in a tobacco factory rolling cigars. I think that experience is why she could never stand the smell of tobacco. In a few years, she was able to get a job in a candy factory. All the money she earned was to keep the family going. They also always had a vegetable garden. It was a necessity for providing fresh food during the growing season and providing canned goods through the winter. Everyone in the family contributed to taking care of the garden. They sometimes disagreed about the right way to do things or when something was ripe, but they also knew that they would continue to survive by working together.

When she shared these stories with me, she reminded me that we should never take the food we have for granted. She said a garden takes on a deeper meaning when you’ve planted the food you are eating, have helped it to grow and harvested the produce to put on your own table. It makes you grateful. The garden can bring you into an awareness of the earth and all that is living. It reminds us that we are connected to it and dependent on what it provides. In addition, the family always made sure they had enough to share with others in their community, even if it was a few potatoes or a cup of strawberries. And neighbors shared with them. Sometimes it was a few fresh eggs or a bottle of home made sarsaparilla soda. The garden was an important connection to family and to community. They didn’t just grow the garden for their own benefit.

Both of my grandmothers also included some flowers in their gardens. My grandmother Ruth was especially fond of roses and having flowers blooming from early spring until the fall. For her, it was important to have the practical, food for the table, and the beautiful in her yard. The flowers provided an ever changing landscape of color, a marker for the passing of time, and a reminder to enjoy what you have today, each flower in its season.

In our current world, our new next, many of us have turned our attention to what is around us in our own yards. For some, it’s a return to a gardening hobby that may have been left behind years ago. For others, it’s a new challenge and they are just now discovering the joys and trials of digging in the dirt. For those of us with yards, we have an opportunity to dig in and change a landscape, think about creating living art through plants, creating a place where fresh tomatoes can grow and ripped and then be enjoyed with family or given to friends.

My grandmothers had many new normals in their early years. And they weren’t over in a few weeks or months. They had years of struggle. Both put off getting married because of not having enough money to start a family. They had to make sacrifices, but knew they were not alone. Both of them told me stories about being on the home front in WWII, worried about family members serving overseas. Yes, both sides of the family had victory gardens. There was a shared commitment to the common cause. It made them stronger and gave them resilience. They both had grown by experiencing difficulties, living with very real fears, and by keeping connected to what was good and beautiful in their world.

There is something of the eternal that seeps into your consciousness when you commit to gardening or actual landscaping like moving a lot of dirt or hauling rocks around. Both my grandmothers knew that. It is different when you are doing it yourself, not just hiring someone. Sweating (and maybe swearing), feeling sore at night, and getting a few bruises can be very good teachers. We become more connected to the natural world when we spend the time to be in it, be involved with it, even when it means overcoming obstacles.

Over the past few weeks, I have felt like my grandmothers were with me as I worked outside. When I got frustrated, I could hear them saying be patience, encouraging me to keep going, get dirty, think about what I wanted my space to look like and what I wanted in it. All this hard work would certainly not kill me, even if it sometimes felt that way. I can see them smiling when I finished the first part of my backyard walking path, complete with pea rocks, flowers and ferns. I can hear them saying again “be patient” as I start the next section, reminding me it won’t get finished in a day. Patience can be tough when we are used getting things at the touch of a button. These are good lessons to remember in the world we are in.

Gardens, when we create them, nurture them and enjoy them have the ability to help us recognize the grace that often goes unnoticed in our too busy lives. It can remind us of what we need to remember about our relationships, our careers, and dealing with times that are difficult. Both my grandmothers certainly became more resilient because of what they experienced and overcame. They taught me that a garden, big or small, on a porch or even a few plants in an apartment, can give you clarity about how the seasons in your own life will come and go. Gardens remind us that change is going to happen. It may be bad the day, this week or this year, but things will change. And we can appreciate the beauty, even if it is transient, that is offered to us today. Our gardens, big or small, share reminders of what is important and are well worth the time spent digging in the dirt.

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