A comment today reminded me of this … I imported it two years ago from my original blog, and I don’t know its age at the time. Suffice it to say that it was written in another time frame and mindset, but I’ve chosen not to edit it … leaving it as is.
A nostalgia piece in honor of Memorial Day …
During a recent nursery visit to replace trees and plants lost to our western Kansas drought and heat, the greenhouse owner snapped off a king-sized rose bloom and handed it to me. Magically, as soon as I caught its scent, my grandma was there beside me and an entire era presented itself for review.
We grew up across a gravel driveway from my paternal grandparents, on a sweet little farm in the middle of a great expanse of wheat fields and pastures. There were cows and chickens and a big barn populated by sleepy cats, but the best part of the farm was Grandma and Grandpa’s garden. It spanned acres, and included nearly anything organic you could name — potatoes, carrots, onions, radishes, rhubarb, asparagus, sweet corn, peas, green beans, turnips (yucky), strawberries and tomatoes (both of which we were allowed to eat straight off the vine and warm from the sun, taking advantage of the salt shaker Grandma thoughtfully tucked under the leaves); fruit trees including apple, cherry, and peach — and every kind of flowering thing. Peonies, mock orange, baby’s breath, tulips, daisies, columbine, cosmos, daffodils, lilies, phlox, snapdragons … and roses. That list is by no means complete.
All of this was surrounded by hedges that my grandpa kept trimmed and orderly — a tall one across the back, with openings into the orchard beyond, and shorter hedges along the front and sides, with shaped entryways into the three main sections of the garden. Back in a corner, close to the cattle pens, grew watermelons and cantaloupe, sweet and succulent. And a half-mile away, next to an irrigation engine, was a colossal watermelon patch (which became infamous in its own right — a story for another day) that produced enough for all summer and into the fall, including a rollicking annual community watermelon feed.
Outside the confines of the hedges sat my grandparents’ imposing two-story farmhouse, filled with antiques and decades of living, surrounded by a cool green yard with a hammock stretched between two huge cottonwood trees and a rope swing hung from a sturdy branch. The clotheslines where we helped Grandma “hang out a nice wash,” as she invariably declared it to be, stretched across the lush grass.
There was a cement and brick milk house where our dad and grandpa filtered the milk from the cows, skimmed off the heavy cream, and left it all in glass jars to cool in troughs of fresh running water brought up by the windmill anchored next to the building. A battered tin cup hung on a pipe so anyone needing a quick pick-me-up could pump a fresh drink of water any time. That water was life-giving to the farmer coming in off the tractor, the farm wife with an apron full of freshly-picked veggies, or the farm kid tired and sweaty from a hot game of hide-and-seek in the yard. We (my sisters and brother and I, along with cousins and neighbor kids) spent long hours in that yard and garden, held countless tea parties under the towering twin conifers set in the middle of the garden proper, and built more than one fort among the acres of fruit trees and evergreens out back. And on occasion, we worked.
When I think of my grandparents, he shows up in overalls and she’s wearing a homemade housedress and apron, tied at the waist and pinned to the flowery cotton of her dress at the shoulders. And she never went out, hoe in hand, without a handmade sunbonnet. A real lady had creamy white skin, and although Grandma never managed to achieve that standard of beauty, having been born with distinctly olive coloring, she tried. Grandpa, too, protected his head with a well-worn felt cowboy hat that he sweated through in nothing flat.
Thus they went forth every day equipped for work, intent upon it, dedicated to it. Those luscious fruits and vegetables out there in the hot sun were life, and life doesn’t wait. They did their best to corral us, to slow our head-long summer romp through the garden, to foist sunbonnets upon us and thrust hoes and rakes into our grubby little hands. I remember thinking I really should help out more, take more of an interest, learn something while I was at it. But the fork in the big tree behind the milk house was calling my name, my book was still stashed there from the day before, and I was hot and tired and needed a drink of ice cold water from the well …. and I never quite found time to own responsibility and discipline in any discernible way.
There was one time of year, however, when we all pitched in and did our part. I’m ashamed to say, it had a lot to do with the fact that we got paid for our efforts, but, well ….
Every year in the days preceding Memorial Day, my grandparents would cut huge armloads of tightly-budded peonies, wrap them in wet burlap, and store them in crocks of well water in the cool and spacious cement-lined root cellar. Other flowers, too, found their way into crocks, awaiting that early-morning observance at cemeteries around the countryside. Our job as grandchildren was to take old paring knives and snip daisy bouquets in counts of twenty-five, band them and put them into jars in the cellar. It was always a treat to go from the sunny garden to the damp coolness of “the pit,” and Grandma and Grandpa paid us a nickel a bouquet. We were suddenly rich, and Woolworth’s, McClellan’s, and Duckwall’s were a mere twelve miles away.
We somehow gained a sense of having contributed to something very special. The day before Memorial Day, which was known as Decoration Day then, and very early the morning of, neighbors and strangers from surrounding areas started pulling into the drive to collect the big flower baskets and smaller bundles they’d pre-ordered. And many, knowing there was always plenty, stopped by to see what they might pick up. The air had a special freshness about it and people invariably seemed happy and intent on their mission.
I remember feeling proud of my grandma for her ability to grow and arrange flowers into spectacular gifts, and a connectedness to all those people coming to embrace her talents. I felt firmly tied to all the generations being honored on those Memorial weekends, and I still remember snippets of stories from the conversations I overheard.
After all the paying customers had retrieved their floral offerings, Grandma let us kids have the leftover daisy bundles to place on the graves of the nearly-forgotten babies from the 1800s in our small community cemetery a mile from the farm. It always felt like we’d done something amazing by honoring those brief little lives, and the yearly military ceremony conducted by aging war heroes in a sometimes haphazard and ill-fitting assortment of service garb lent added poignancy.
If my grandparents were here now and could somehow read my heart (which I always felt they could), they would be gratified to know how much I actually did learn through their example and the privilege of living in their shadow. Things like hard work, respect for the living and the dead, a certain acceptance that no matter what happens life goes on … these things have stood me in good stead over all the years since Grandma and Grandpa left us.
As with most farmers of that generation they never became wealthy. But the things they passed along to us are beyond price … and well worth consciously appreciating as another Memorial Day rolls around.