I’ll I’ll be honest. I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic. As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents. Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete. (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)
So I don’t really grow any plants because Granny grew them, or because I remember them from my childhood. I am envious of those of you who can grow a certain rose say, or smell a lilac, and feel an instant connection to a family member long gone. Like beloved family recipes, special plants can tie generations together, and I can see how growing such a plant would truly be an act of remembrance and love.
Now, this is not to say that plants don’t figure in to my childhood memory at all — they’re just not garden plants. I will always remember, for example, the orange and lemon trees that grew in our backyard in southern California, where I lived from age three to age six. My most vivid memory is not of the tree, however, but of my mother hunched over the juicer, and of her exasperation that it took so many oranges to make “one blasted glass of juice.”
I also remember the gum tree from that same yard — the little Sputnik-shaped pricker-balls that littered the lawn every year — and, most significantly, the way the tree’s roots made the perfect little environment in which to create Matchbox Car towns. With my three middle fingers squeezed together I would trace out Matchbox roads in the dirt between those roots, constructing peaceful, Matchbox utopias. In my game, the Matchbox cars were all friends, and they all participated in parades and took vacations together. The blue Pontiac and the Maxi Taxi were best friends, in fact. Unfortunately, my older brother John would usually come along and attack my serene little town with Pricker Ball bombs or fire imaginary bullets at it from his model Messerschmidt airplanes. “The Nazis destroyed your entire city!!” he would proclaim.
Another beloved plant from my childhood was the American Holly in the backyard of our Virginia home, where my parents still live. Most kids are savvier than I when choosing a climbing tree, and prefer to scale trees with leaves that do not draw blood. Looking back, I think I must have chosen that tree because it was the only one with limbs close enough to the ground for me to grasp easily (I was not an athletic child and could not “shimmy” up trunks the way some other kids could.)
Many an hour I spent in that tree mulling over the deeper questions of life, such as: Will this thin branch support my 85 pound frame? and I wonder if Mom knows John is over there sneaking a cigarette on the Sparkman’s back porch? When I was in college my dad cut that old holly tree down, but very thoughtfully saved the section of trunk that had been my perch all those years before, sparing it from the firewood pile. This is possibly the most sentimental plant-based interaction that has transpired between the generations of my family. Sniff.
I often wonder what memories my son Charlie will have of our current garden, of the garden he is growing up in.
I imagine that, years from now, he will be sitting with his own grandchildren, and with a misty look in his eye, tell them about the garden of his childhood:
“Your great-grandmother was a fantastic gardener,” he will say. “Her planting combinations were simply exquisite. You should have seen this one design where she combined toad lily and beautyberry with a purple-leafed astilbe…not only were the colors perfectly coordinated but it also created three seasons of interest.”
Oh, leave me alone, of course I know he won’t say that.
What will stick with him, I wonder? The drumset he constructed when he was three by wedging cracked frisbees among the stems of our old lilac? The secret little wallows beneath our overgrown forsythias that only he and the dog can crawl into? The red berries on my ‘Winter Red’ Holly that apparently make the perfect little grenades/missiles/bullets?
I don’t know if Charlie will become a gardener or not. I have no idea if he will remember what flowers his mother grew or how she designed her summer pots or any of the other aesthetic aspects of the garden that we toil over so. One thing that’s pretty clear is that, as long as he’s running around in it, the garden will be a part of the landscape of his childhood — no matter what it looks like. And, just like any good gardener, he looks around at the trees and the rocks and the dirt, and he sees possibility.
Please check out what some other gardeners have to say about Memory and Plants: