Gardens of Love
"Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Luke 6:31 (NIV)
"Let me tell you about..."
These are words I heard often from my grandmother as we'd sit on a patch of grass in front of one of her gardens or sway back and forth in the porch swing as she'd relate tales from her girlhood. Many of her stories focused on places she'd visited or the people she'd grown up with, most of whom I'd never met, some who'd died before I was born. She had an endless supply of stories being one of eleven children growing up in a small, rural town where everyone knew one another. Along each side of her house and in the backyard, she'd rooted a harum-scarum collection of plants. These plants, each beautiful in its own way, represented those people and places in the stories she told.
She'd pluck a cluster of Sweet Williams, roll a stem between her thumb and finger, and smile. "Sweet Williams grew in Big Mama's yard," she'd reminisce as she'd extend the flowers toward me so I could touch their delicate pink petals.
I'd never met Big Mama, but I'd heard stories about her so many times, I felt I'd been there, too. From the tidbits about Big Mama, I could visualize a big screen version of a story about to unfold. Big Mama had been my grandmother's mother-in-law. My grandmother would then launch into the story of how she'd met Johnny, her husband, my grandfather who'd died when my mother was a little girl. She'd laugh about how they'd met and blush as she recalled their first dance.
Another time she might cut roses from a bush she'd transplanted from a sister's garden. She'd talk about how she'd grown up with six sisters, how they used to climb to the tops of hundred-year-old trees, swim in a nearby creek, and tell scary stories at night when they'd all pile into bed. I'd listen enraptured as she'd describe their one room school house, how they'd used vanilla behind their ears as cologne, and how one time when they'd been sitting in the old church house, they'd gotten "the giggles" when they were supposed to be listening while the traveling preacher droned on and on.
Often, after one of these memory lane walks, she'd then wrap those flowers in a damp towel, making them into a bouquet that we'd take to a neighbor who might not be feeling well or needed cheering up.
"Flowers always make a body feel better," she'd say.
In the spring I'd help as she overturned soil for her vegetable garden. I'd carry large clumps of dirt to the far end of the yard as she'd throw her weight into a shovel to break up the ground. As she dug, she'd tell me about their dinners "back then."
"Mama used to cook roasting-ears for all the farm hands and relatives over a big, open fire at the back of the house," she'd remember. "We'd gather under trees and around wooden tables and eat 'til we thought we'd bust!"
"Roasting-ears" were her words for corn-on-the-cob. She'd describe the sweetness of the corn and how tiny pieces of the kernels would get stuck between her teeth. She'd talk about how it was her job to churn the butter that they slathered over the roasting ears while they were still hot.
Or, when her "garden would come in," she might spin a yarn while we enjoyed the fruits of her labor. She'd pick a ripe watermelon from a vine and rap it with her fist.
"This is the way we ate them in the fields," the corners of her mouth lifting into a smile as she cherished a distant memory.
I'd watch as the green rind broke beneath her thrust, exposing the bright red heart of the melon inside. She'd pull out a chunk and we'd eat until out stomachs were full, juice dribbling down our chins.
"Be careful you get out the seeds." She'd smile. "I heard about a boy who swallowed one and a big watermelon grew right inside his stomach."
I'd stop eating and challenge, "That's not true!"
She'd shrug and wink. "Might be... might not... just telling you what I heard."
Deep down, I didn't think it was true, but when I resumed munching my melon, I was extra careful to spit out all the seeds just to be on the safe side.
Like her flowers, she shared what she had from her vegetable garden. Sometimes she baked fruit cobblers or prepared a "mess of collard greens." Other times we'd drop off baskets of tomatoes, bell peppers, and summer squash. The food went to families with new babies, friends celebrating special occasions, or those who had someone sick or might be "down on their back." When I got older, I understood that the extra food had also gone to many who were out of work or "stretched thin."
In another area she grew herbs. I can recreate in a minute their smells: the freshness of the mint, the lure of the lavender, and the sharpness of the rosemary. I'd break off pieces of basil when she made meat sauce, bring in bunches of chives for baked potatoes, and snap off springs of parsley for meat loaf. She'd talk about how her grandmother used herbs as medicine to cure her family's ills. She'd been so good, in fact, that people from all around would come to her for plasters and potions.
My grandmother wasn't known for her cures, but she was known for sitting with those in need, taking time for the elderly, and watching the "youngins'" while an overworked mother took a nap. My grandmother was loved for her compassion and generosity with what God had given her.
My grandmother did more than grow plants and tell stories. She gratefully shared all she had with others: her time, talents, and resources. From her I learned that family and friends are blessings from God. He plants them in our lives, but it is up to us to nurture and tend these relationships. The harvests we reap from our human gardens will provide more than we'll ever need to sustain us during our time on earth.
"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work."
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (NIV)