My grandmother was a master gardener. She grew dahlias and chrysanthemums, sweet peas and hydrangeas, tomatoes and corn, green beans and squash, sustenance for body and soul.
She could make anything bloom. Even me.
For most of her life, she lived on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, where she reared four children, buried a husband and took solace in the changing of the seasons, the constancy of nature and the never-ending mysteries of life.
After my parents divorced, my dad moved back to the farm and worked at a nearby mill. I visited on weekends or holidays, whenever my mother allowed.
While my dad devoured my grandmother’s vegetables, I inhaled her flowers. There are different kinds of hunger. I was a skinny kid, never ate much. But her flowers filled a thousand hungry places in my soul.
My farm chores were few, but vital. I’d help my dad with the milking by holding the cow’s tail so it didn’t swat him in the face; scatter feed for the chickens and collect the eggs; dry the dishes for my grandmother and stand on my toes to put them away.
When my chores were done, I was free to roam the mountain singing songs, keeping an eye out for snakes and gathering an armload of blooms — both those she had planted and those that were, as she said, planted by the hand of God: wild azaleas and rhododendron, violets and pansies, morning glories that twined around fence posts in the pasture, Queen Anne’s lace that grew in clumps by the road.
I also collected chiggers and ticks and other vermin that dug into my flesh and made me scratch like a flea-bitten hound.
My grandmother would dab liniment on the bites and say, “Beauty has a price. I hope it was worth it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I’d say, “it was.” Then I’d scratch some more.
I loved gathering flowers on my own. But what I loved best was gathering them with her.
We’d hike for miles. She’d point to plants and rocks and birds and clouds while I trotted along behind her like a sponge with legs, trying to soak it all up.
At the end of the day, we’d sort the gatherings and choose our favorites to make bouquets: one for the living room, one for the kitchen and one each for our night stands, hers and mine.
My dad said his room was too small for flowers, but I’d fill a Coke bottle to place by his bed.
Even then, as a child, I knew what I needed most from my grandmother was not her flowers, but her time.
She’s been gone for years, but still sometimes, when I reach down to pick a bloom or pull a weed, I see her hand, not mine.
I thought I’d grow up to be a gardener just like her. When my kids were small, I planted bulbs that got eaten by gophers. And pansies that got eaten by deer. And a whole lot of other stuff that just plain died. Finally, I gave up. I told myself, someday, when my children had children, I’d be a gardening grandma.
Then the grandbabies started showing up, and I discovered I’d much rather chase after them than go digging in the dirt.
The truth is, I’m no gardener. I spend more time pulling bags through an airport than weeds from a garden. I love watching things grow and bloom. But I’m a picker, not a planter.
I differ from my grandmother in lots of ways but this: I will always carry within me a heart she grafted from her own.
I don’t need to plant a garden. My flowers are in bloom. Randy is a tiger lily. Henry is a morning glory. Wiley is a sweet pea. Charlotte is Queen Anne’s lace.
I wish you could see them.
They delight and exhaust and complete me with a kind of beauty that is worth any price.
All I need to do is tend them with time, water them with love, and hope that someday, when they hold their first grandchild, they just might see my hand.
Sharon Randall is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune News Service (www.sharonrandall.com).
Ruth Ann Dailey is off today.