Notes From Earth to Heaven

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mourning In the Garden

When I first bought my home and my children were small,  I decided to do what my grandmother did. I  Started  a garden. My grandmother's home would not have been such a memory without it.

I was a young girl, when my mother sent me to spend time with  my grandmother, who was old and wise and had magic in her hands. 

She was born in Italy and was raised by her father , after losing her mother and sisters in an earthquake there.  She came to Ellis Island with her father and future husband from an arranged marriage and began a life in America as a seamstress in a factory in New York City.

She sewed and gardened and crocheted and knitted and cooked like no one else ever could .  Her breath and her hands smelled of garlic and whether you were being pinned for a new dress or spoken to about life, that garlic scent came with the territory, and you stood breath held but grateful that she was all yours.

She always wore an apron,  unless she was going to a wedding.  Her stockings were rolled down to her knees to be proper but cool .  She wore a pair of black open toed, matronly sandals, that I am convinced served her for her entire life. When the stockings got too old and worn , they were used for holding up or tying the branches of something growing in her garden.

 She recycled when no name was even thought of for it and the concept and problem had not been addressed or even spoken about yet. 

The  broken egg shells and coffee grinds fermented and waited their turn on the basement stairs to be used to enrich her soil. Seeds were dried on foil dishes for next year's planting.  She was amazing and it was reflected in her garden.  She and her garden were one. 

If she was not at the sewing machine with an eye to the needle and the peddle humming out of control, or the stove, carefully stirring while smelling and tasting , you knew where she was. 

She wore a kerchief around her head to contain the sweat in summer or keep her ears warm in cooler weather and most importantly to keep hair out of her pot.  The same little sweater hung on her , tired , tattered with moth holes, yet it had not outlived its use, as it provided extra safety pins pinned in to it in case one was needed unexpectedly .  She wore colorful cotton dresses that  she made herself and an apron she also made to match,  until grandpa died  and then she wore black.... almost the rest of her life. 

She convinced me that the pigeon who landed in her yard after grandpa died was grandpa coming from heaven to spend time with her and I waited every morning. when sure enough he would appear.  Sometimes he'd visit in the afternoon after her 2PM nap, where she would turn on the old radio on the mantal by the rocking chair  in the parlor.  She would  listen to the italian station and dose and snore  for no more than than thirty minutes.  Any more time than that would encourage laziness in her mind.  After 2, we would convene to the driveway. I would hold the scane of yarn in my hands and she would put it in a ball and together we would talk about her childhood and a wide variety of topics like not kissing boys. 

Herbs dried in her downstairs kitchen and pasta hung over an old broom stick, perched across two chairs that she raised on top of the table for "sanitary"  reasons.  There was always a cake under the cake keeper and cookies freshly baked in the cookie jar, which I am still jealous now resides now in my cousins' kitchen. 

Spaghetti sauce and meatballs were always simmering on the stove and the creeking of the garden gate that was spring loaded would slam, which was a sign that the sauce needed more fresh basil or oregano.

She  lived in the city, and  had a little backyard garden tucked away among the brick buildings and concrete driveways, and slated roofs.  It was hemmed in by a hand painted bright blue wood and wire fence,  that complimented the sky she worked under.  It was brimming with juicy figs and a variety of fresh vegetables. The flowers were so many in variety, and  they seemed to compete for attention as they popped their heads up above the vegetables.

Lilac bushes, fresh herbs and  roses seemed to create a perfumed potion that would intoxicate an innocent passer by and leave a child to stillness.  I was convinced early on, that I had found the Garden of Eden and that perhaps my dear old gramma was actually Eve.

The only other invisible force that could even compete with that smell was the smell of the clean sheets on the clothes line beside the garden. It ran from my grandmothers' bedroom to the neighbors fence. I would hand her the clothes pins out of the old grey clothespin box.  When  she would go inside ,  I would hide between the sheets  and just inhale and exhale until I was chased away to do something more constructive.

It was pure bliss being there with her.  Pure bliss indeed.  It was my retreat and my safe place even now, as I imagine being there, blessed by those memories that sustain me even in my grief.

I spent every summer with her and together we would carefully work in that garden.  Daily she would search her fig tree carefully for figs, not even losing one to the ground. Lifting up the bottom of her apron up to form a pouch she would gather every one , as  she reached  high and low.  She would allow me three figs a day, if I was good.

She seemingly tucked the figs secretly in her apron and with her italian accent , she would say "  non't you tell noboddddyyyyyy! " and would place firmly this odd piece of fruit in my hand,  like it was a piece of gold and I would eat it.  

I wasn't even sure I liked figs and even if they were not ripe, they were sweet, because it was our little secret and I was the privileged one she chose to share them with!  The rest of the figs went on a foil dish on top of the stove for a snack while cooking or simply left there warmed slightly by the pilot light to sweeten. 

In winter she would take one of her old coats out and tie it up around that fig tree to protect it from the weather.  It almost looked as if she stood out there throughout winter watching over her garden  and keeping vigil, no matter what the harsh , cold winter would bring, until spring arrived again. 

We'd plant and water and weed.....  well she would weed, and we would eat from the garden.

When I was married and had children I lived out of state.  Once a season we would travel to New York City to  help her tend her overgrown garden that she was getting too old to tend.  We never spoke about it.  She just stood there one hand on her hip and the other hand directing  and pointing at what needed to be done next.

To my children,  it too was the Garden of Eden, and we would feel taken away to a magical place far from the concrete and brick and get lost in the beauty of her labor and the sound of her broken English commanding authority, and calling us in for dinner when the job was done.  An Italian  feast would be set before you and the courses never ended.  I can still taste her cooking with very little imagination, smell it with even less, and my stomach will begin to growl.

She lived to be 102 years old, but her memory and the memory of that garden lives in my heart and the hearts of my and my children forever.

I never forgot those magic moments and how rich that time was.

Many years later, my husband left me to raise three children alone.  No child support, no formal education, and an opportunity to see what I could create with my life and in my hands.  

Eventually I purchased my own home, which coincidentally closed on the anniversary of my grandmothers death.  I made a pot of sauce to create her essence and feel her presence and decided that next spring I would plant my first garden in her honor. 

My son was 10 and together we planted and watered and weeded.... well I weeded , and we had the most amazing garden.  He would be out in the neighborhood on his bike, shirtless and tanned with a possy of his little friends,  and every summer day they would all roll in at the end of the day, almost seeming for reinforcements and to nourish the troops, as they would pick cherry tomatoes and fill their mouths until the juice and seeds dripped all over their little tanned chests,  and picked snap peas right off the vine . He was so proud of my garden.  He would camp in the yard and I would fry up zucchini and eggs  with grated cheese for the boys as a midnight snack and they would smack their lips and rave how good it was.  He loved that garden.

He is gone now.  He died in February 2008 . He was 22 .  He was an extraodinary young man.  The death was senseless and too painful to write about for me, besides I will not let his death define him.  He was amazing and unique and full of love and sunshine till the day he died.  I can still feel him with me and will never be the same again. 

Someone said once," you will forever more walk with a limp. " I do.  Sometimes it hurts just to breathe.

 He left me a granddaughter to love.  She is almost five now. 

Together we plant and water and weed.... well I weed,  and we pick tomatoes and cucumbers and squash and green beans and she marvels at the garden we started in the spring and tend to as it magically grows.  She asked for a sign that says "Lexi's garden " with an arrow pointing to our backyard garden.

She is all I have left of him now.  But like a rose from a rare heirloom rose bush,  she is as bright and amazing and unique and as colorful as  he was.  When she visits we escape to the garden where her playhouse also sits and we pick and play and laugh and hunt and picnic.

This morning I realized that the garden is a magical place where time neither stands still, or marks time like the rest of time.  It has a rhythem of its own.  Here the past , the present, and the future converge and life has no beginning and no end, and God is felt here.  He speaks to me and brings me moments with my son,  as he shows up once again a little boy,  just sprouting up to be a man. We spend eternity together in one moment and memories are being made with my granddaughter,   ripe with opportunities to speak about life and growing and changing and what I can teach her and show her.  as a grandmother.  And moments with my grandmother arise and I am a little girl again, protected from the broken heart I carry every day, she  holds on to the pieces in her apron , hoping they will heal, that I will heal , while I ache with the reality of this great and amazing , handsome flower,  barely bloomed, taken from me. 

The seasons in my life seem to bounce from girl to mother to grandmother to girl and I am taken away in the garden's magic. 

Where else can eternity and the present moment be felt so fully?  Where can one face life and hideaway all at the same time.  Where can one find God and feel peace,  no matter what goes on outside its perimeter.

I remenice and miss my grandmother,  yet I feel her nearer than near in my garden.  I find a time to connect with my son, where the " if only's"  don't torture my soul,  and the years of his innocence soothe me even now, time paused for me to enjoy being his mother again,  as he shows up to pick cherry tomatoes with his daughter and me.

Nature puts on its production.  Butterflies dance through the air and the bees do their busy dance. Stray cats sneak about, through the high parts and the birds swoop and fly and wet their wings at the bird bath. 

 I am a little girl, I am a mom, I am a grandmother.  Seasons of my life peek through,  as the sun gets higher in the sky and the dirt and mud and sweat merge with my tears and the breeze blows coolness on me and dries them, while the sun embraces me with its warm hug and deep affection.  There is no work in the garden, just healing and discovering and understanding, and knowing that God is there.  God is always there. And I am never alone.

If I have to mourn, I am glad I have my garden to mourn in.

 I hope this memory  is treasured in my grandaughters' heart as it is mine, forever.  I feel rich to have this stored in my soul. Thank you grandma for still and always being there for me.  Thank you son for coming back to pick a time where we can share Lexi together and share a time when you were my little boy and time was sweet and unblemished.    I love you son for  picking a time to visit with me.  Thank you God for bringing me this angelic little girl to love,  who loves to plant seeds, water, and weed, well I will weed.... and together we will get through the loss of her daddy and my son together. Thank you Lexi for loving me. 

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