Today is my grandma’s 98th birthday. I originally wrote this essay for a Fine Gardening contest (which I didn’t win), and decided to revise it and share it with you in honor of her special day.
It’s funny how gardens are such emotional things. You enter some gardens and feel as though you are in someone’s living room, the kind of living room where they keep the plastic on the lampshades to keep them from getting dirty, and you are afraid to move for fear of breaking a knick-knack. Then there are the gardens that speak to something deep within yourself, that open up the hidden places inside you that bear witness: Yes, this is truly a garden. And it’s a place that draws you to itself; you want to go back again and again. But understanding what it is about a garden that creates that sense of recognition, of kinship, almost, is another thing altogether.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, attempting to create my own garden, that I realized how deeply my experience of my grandmother’s garden influenced my idea of what a garden should be. But of course, no one called it a garden, even though there were ornamental plants in it. We always called it the yard. The house itself was built close to the street; the yard was primarily to the right and the rear of the house. The entire property was enclosed by a hedge probably three to four feet high. There was a gate in the rightmost side of the hedge, allowing easy access to the neighbors. The main lawn, bordered on the left by the driveway and the right by this hedge, was the location of many family reunions and happy memories. My grandfather had built a brick patio and barbecue grill, and various male members of the extended family took their turns cooking everything from hamburgers to London broil. Meanwhile, the women were in the kitchen, frying peppers and onions and preparing other dishes. We children wove in and out of them, taking in the gossip and talk of politics, until the food was ready to eat. Eventually, the grownups settled into lawn chairs in the dappled shade. The great-uncles slipped us sips of their drinks.
When all of that got boring, the children explored. About midway back, the property was divided by the garage to the left and a very tall conifer to the right. The conifer was the anchor to a flower bed that curved toward the garage. The effect was to partially hide the back half of the property, lending a sense of mystery and surprise that I was very sensitive to as a child. The stone path leading from the brick patio and following the right side of the garage made the lure of adventure irresistible. If you followed the path you would find my great-grandfather’s vegetable garden. It was small as vegetable gardens go (after all, he was in his nineties), but I have a memory of him standing in it hoeing, and of eating fried squash blossoms that had come from it. Further down this path you arrived at that most mysterious and ominous place, the chicken house. I was not permitted to go here without an adult companion, which made it forbidding enough. Inside, it was dark and full of Dangerous Junk, and even with an adult I never went in. Instead, behind the chicken house, in the furthermost reaches of the property, were the neglected remains of a berry patch and a grape arbor. It may be that my great-grandfather tended these plants in his “younger” days, but by the time I was old enough to remember, no one did anything with them except to glean the occasional raspberry when they were in season. Still, the sense of going somewhere completely “other,” where a sense of danger loomed (who knew *what* could come out of that chicken house, even with the door shut?), where the rewards were meager but certainly sweet, was very strong.
Retracing your steps out of the chicken house back to my great-grandfather’s vegetable garden, you would come to a fork. The one fork led back to the patio; the other fork led to the other side of the house, the leftmost side if facing it from the street. This mysterious path was a narrow alleyway serving no other purpose than to provide access to the front, but beyond the hedge I could hear a vicious (to my mind) barking dog. For me, it was the height of bravery to tread that path. I usually did so only to follow my far more intrepid cousins, hiding my fear of the dog in order to be privy to whatever feats of daredevilry they had in mind. However, I was most likely to visit my favorite part of Grandma’s yard when my cousins weren’t around. If, upon reaching the vegetable garden from the patio, you looked to your right, you would see a dwarf apple tree snuggled up against that tall conifer. This tree was the only tree of my acquaintance that I could successfully climb. Because it was hidden from the main lawn by the conifer, it provided yet another venue for daydreaming, vanquishing fears, and accomplishing previously unattainable feats.
Though I am far from achieving my goals, it is this sense of mystery, adventure, and even not-too-dangerous danger that I hope to create in my garden, not only for myself, but also for my children. A path–or even better, several paths–is key to creating this experience. That a path exists gives a sense of safety. You know you won’t get lost or swallowed up as long as you can see the path. The fact that you can’t see where a path leads is what lends it the air of mystery, what gives you a little tingle of excitement. And being a child in Grandma’s yard taught me that.