by Lillian Csernica on Februart 12, 2018
“To be one woman, truly, wholly, is to be all women. Tend one garden and you will birth worlds.” –Kate Braverman
Springtime with its new growth of plants and flowers always makes me think of my maternal grandmother’s flower garden. They say inherited traits skip a generation. That means we’re more like our grandparents than our parents. This is certainly true of me and both of my grandmothers.
My maternal grandmother was a woman who lived large in a time when that just wasn’t done. Her role model was her own mother, my great-grandmother. Back in the ’30s Nana had gotten a divorce then opened her own modeling agency, two actions that were way beyond the social norm for women of her time. My grandmother was raised in that environment of independence and determination. Grandma became a fashion model. The natural companion for a model is a photographer, right? My grandfather was a professional photographer with his own studio and darkroom. I have many of the photos he took of Grandma, showing her devilish smile and the wicked sparkle in her eye.
Grandma wrote a society column, full of parties and events and the kind of good-natured gossip that makes for lively reading. Not only did her column appear in the paper, but her photo as well, and under amazing circumstances. Once, on a trip to Enseñada, Grandma donned the traditional traje de luces of the bullfighter, complete with hat and cloak, and fought a bull right there in the bullring in front of God and everybody. And she won! I now have that “suit of lights” as a treasured reminder of the wild woman Grandma really was.
When I think of Grandma’s house, I think of the garden out in the backyard. It might have been the Hall of Flowers at the county fair or the sales floor of an upscale nursery. When I was three years old, we lived with Grandma for a short time. I was just old enough to start getting into everything, and that included the garden. The roses looked good enough to eat, in sugary pinks, deep golden yellows, and reds even darker than Grandma’s lipstick. Their scents mingled with the delicate fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine and the down-home sweetness of the honeysuckle vines. On hot summer days I liked to sit out there and just breathe.
There was a lot more to Grandma’s garden than just flowers. A tall tree with drooping branches would blossom with thousands of pale lavender petals. This was a “jacaranda.” I loved that word. It was new and strange and made me think of spicy food in faraway lands. There was the raspberry bramble, a dangerous place for little hands and little tummies. The best berries were always deep in the bramble where the birds couldn’t eat them, which meant I had to stick my hand way in there past all the thorns and spiderwebs and bugs. One day my cousin Kevin ate a bunch of the berries before they were ripe. His stomachache taught me the value of patience, and of letting him go first!
The garden remains a symbol for all those traits I saw in Grandma. What the child I was saw and remembered the woman I am can now interpret and understand. Grandma was beautiful and exotic and livened up her surroundings. Some days Grandma could be thorny. There were places in her house and in her life that little kids just didn’t go. Boundaries are reassuring to a child, even when they provoke unbearable curiosity.
Then there’s my father’s mother. She married my grandfather and set up house as a farm wife, giving him three sons and three daughters. She survived the Depression and both World Wars. She lived at the same address all the years I knew her. She made a great mulligan stew, played Yahtzee like a pro, and never once commented on the length of my husband’s hair (At one point he had a ponytail halfway down his back).
Grandma lived in a trailer park in Ohio. When I think of her garden, I think of the little field beside her trailer, a shaggy patch of weeds and blackberry vines, dandelions and wildflowers, lizards and birds and bumblebees as big as the tip of my thumb. It’s a great big happy organic mess. Mother Nature is left to her own devices there. If anybody understood the importance of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” that’s my Grandma.
As you can see, my grandmothers are two very different types of women. From Grandma Lownesberry come my sense of adventure, my fondness for costumes, and my love of travel. From Grandma Chamberlain come my cooking skills, my love of board games, and my contentment with less than perfect housekeeping.
From both my grandmothers I’ve inherited the need to locate and preserve photos of every generation of the family back as far as I can find. I want my two sons to at least see the relatives they won’t have the opportunity to meet. These photos have become a garden of memories, one that will show my boys and their children the root stock that we come from, the sturdy vines and delicate blossoms, the everyday ferns and the hothouse roses. I hope that all the babies yet to come will one day know they are the latest buds to blossom in a garden tended with love.