We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot -- “Little Gidding”
This unrelenting winter has certainly tried the patience of many gardeners, yearning to break free of its icy shackles. I’ve made my plans, ordered my seeds and wait. While I wait, I nostalgically remember how this passion of mine began.
I was raised by my Grandma Gussie (formally, Augusta) until I was about 6 years old, when my mother remarried. I have wonderful memories of our time together, most of them in the garden where Gussie spent many hours tending vegetables and flowers. She introduced me to urban farming. There was a backyard chicken scratching around the marigolds and the cobalt blue bachelor buttons. And dogs: Buster and Lady were constant companions. I spent hours “helping” Grandma dig, playing hide and go seek among the asparagus fronds, and eating ripe tomatoes fresh off the vines. Gussie laughed when I feared the “baby snakes” which were actually earthworms, which, she assured me, were good for the garden. She taught me to recognize the songs of the whippoorwill and the bobwhite. She told me how bees kissed the flowers to make honey. My backyard was a paradise thanks to Gussie’s love of plants and animals, and she taught me to love the garden, too.
When I was old enough to understand, I learned that Gussie might not have been able to share this with me if she hadn’t experienced a tragedy. Gussie’s parents immigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, from Germany in the late 1880’s. Gussie was born in 1893, a first generation American. When she was about 12 years old, her father died unexpectedly. Soon after that, Gussie was taken away from her home and family, having been told that her mother had also died. She was delivered to a farm in Perry County, Missouri where she had to work for her keep. She was, essentially, an indentured servant. Since there was no means of support for the family, the older children were removed from their home while the younger children remained with their mother. I believe my great-grandmother took in laundry or sewed to help support her remaining children. Her English wasn’t good, but she did what she could, and, with some support from her church, got by. It wasn’t until she was a young adult that Gussie learned that her mother was, in fact, alive and they were reunited.
This cruel situation wouldn’t happen now, of course, because there are some safety nets in place that keep families intact. I can only imagine how abandoned and lonely Gussie felt when she was taken away. She wasn’t allowed to finish school, so she acquired perhaps a 7th or 8th grade education. But having developed a love of farming and nature, she survived, becoming resourceful in adversity.
And so life comes full circle: I’m the one who plants the vegetables and flowers; I’m the one who will raise backyard chickens this year. I will make my own sauerkraut and pickles using the same kind of crocks that Gussie used. And even though this impulse skipped a generation, I will continue the tradition of backyard farming and honor my grandmother as I do it. Soon, please!