Valerie Brown Photo
by Michelle Terry
My Grandma Leona was not a classic Depression-era beauty. Her harvest-browned skin and murder of jet-black hair were an arrant contrast to her delicate, shrinking-violet counterparts — cousins and classmates cast in pale, porcelain perfection and white gloves. Grandma’s lanky legs ran faster than the boys’, and she mastered the high jump from a standing position before puberty. Using few words to share her intelligent mind, she set people in their place with Lamott-worthy wit, candor, and random kindness.
On Sundays, she wore a red polka-dot ensemble to church. Grandpa used to reminisce about the dress and the woman who rocked it until he was well into his eighties. Despite his persistence, a romance wasn’t in her immediate plans. She taught school and didn’t agree to marry Grandpa until she was good and ready and into her twenties. Almost a spinster.
Their union produced seven children and more than fifty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When her water broke before the birth of each child, she waved a white kitchen towel at Grandpa, who was in the field. After hearing the story for the hundredth time, I teased her that the seventh white banner signaled surrender more so than the youngest baby. She didn’t disagree with me.
Not an affectionate woman, her love language was doled-out wisdom and instruction rather than hugs and kisses. I attributed her displaced irritability to the unwanted side effect of losing two young-adult children less than three weeks apart — Teddy to a car accident, and Mary Ann to leukemia. She couldn’t grieve because she had ten motherless grandchildren to help raise. I wasn’t yet born, but I imagine her wearing sadness like a wooly coat — the itchy fabric weighing heavier with each of the four grandchildren she had to bury over the next several years. She didn’t cry and spoke about her losses with me only once. A woman shouldn’t outlive her grandchildren.
I thought I saw a tear in those bright eyes, but she turned away too soon for me to be sure.
Even with throngs of grandchildren, Grandma spent time with each of us in different ways. Her gift to me was our afternoons together immersed in biology, family history, and Kansas City Royals baseball. After switching off the game, she’d take me into the spare bedroom, sit me in the rocking chair, and trace our German lineage on the tree sketched inside her Bible. Her fingers were pink and smooth and softened by the memories she shared. In the rare instance she took a nap, I’d sneak back into her room to play with pressed powder and look for evidence of my genetics in the stoic, sepia-toned faces, framed and sitting on her dresser.
After history lessons, she would lead me outside and point out the flowers she’d carried over from relatives’ farms and gardens. Peonies from Great Grandma, and snapdragons from other families who were related to me in more ways than I could count. Those darned things came back every year (the flowers and the cousins) despite the harsh Kansas climate. She destroyed the weeds around them but let the flowers grow wherever they wanted.
Our relationship was simple and quiet—words lilted and surfacing when anxiety got the best of me. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t sleep together, and it worried me. Even at eight, I knew that people in a loving marriage shared a bed, and it distressed me to see the chenille-covered twin beds set against opposite walls.
“Why don’t you ever kiss Grandpa?” I yanked a weed top. “And how come you sleep in different beds?”
She dislodged a stubborn thistle and said, “He takes up too much space, and I kiss him when you’re not looking.”
“You love him, right?”
For a moment there was the hint of a smile, and when I caught her eye, she darted back for the dirt.
“Be sure you get those weeds by the root so they don’t come back.”
Pluck. Pluck. Pluck.
The silence was my cue to get back to work, so I’d sit beside her and weed until the sun set on the wheat-field-dotted plains surrounding her home. Neither one of us took the time to eat or rest. We labored beside each other in comfortable reticence, so anytime she spoke first, my ears leaned in for what I knew would be a life lesson.
“Do you know what I do when I get upset?”
Even though she was stern, I had never seen her lose her temper. “What?”
“I hoe the garden. Especially if I’m mad at Grandpa. First I work the rows between the potatoes and onions. If I’m still cranky, I move to the radishes and the corn. If it’s been a terrible day, I go across the road.”
Then she paused and harrumphed, “I always had the cleanest garden in Mitchell County.”
She valued the brains and athletes, artists and painters, and writers and musicians in our family. I had none of these talents, though it wasn’t from lack of trying. After rejecting a dozen or so horrible pencil drawings and remedial poems, she placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You should just be you. Keep playing bad organ music in church. Your version is hard to sing to, but I love how you add the bells.”
She taught me to be myself, and I learned the powerful skills of perception, self-awareness, and quiet empathy. I sensed her moods and found subtle ways to influence her emotions with gifts of butterflies and chickweed bouquets. I painted her picket fence and picked cherries off the trees. We giggled at our unladylike fingers, which remained inked with crimson stains after pitting and canning the bushels of produce.
As I got older, her vulnerability started to peek out from under her iron apron. “See the wildflower in the center of the roses?”
I nodded as the multi-budded, purple-bloomed beauty poked its head out of the pristine bed of hybrid teas.
“I’m like a wildflower among the roses. Not necessarily bad. Just different and in the wrong place.”
Not long ago, I was spraying the lawn for dandelions when the memory of this conversation popped into my head. Whoever designated these as weeds? Their complex, compact, and buttery blooms contain healing properties, and their glorious presence shouts Spring to the rafters. Why kill them because they are in the wrong spot?
My old soul is a consummate homebody. I am not sophisticated enough to portray the professional outlined in my corporate job description, and I’d much rather wear mud boots than stilettos. Spreadsheets, longitudinal plans, and expense reports don’t lure me like the sway of sunflowers — their faces to the sun and the wind at their backs.
My garden beds are chaotic and full of odd couples and mismatched community members. The promiscuous black-eyed Susans spread their seeds and suffocate their timid, stone-crested neighbors, leaving them to shrink back to the ground until the days get shorter. The extroverted mint shares a spot with petunias unless space gets too tight. Then their heady, scented tendrils stretch for the rooftops, worried I might ignore them. Orioles on the cosmos and echinacea beckon me like a siren to leave the desk and play outside.
At my house, the blooms spill over cedar borders and flaunt their floriferous feathers as if to say, “Just try not to look at me! I’m glorious and splendid, and I belong to you.” I plant peonies in memory of beloved pooches that have passed on. The dahlias and daisies and daylilies are for my friends who crave laughter and dignity in a harsh world. I deliver literal and virtual bundles of blooms when somebody needs them more than me — a sincere message that they are loved, valued, and cherished.
These flower beds and garlands are my love letter to Grandma. In her lifetime, she blossomed like the cherry pop zinnia that already knew the story’s end but flourished as if there wasn’t one. She and I were always on the same path and different from anybody else. Our legacy set as single wildflower blooms among the daydreamy, showy petals and completely content with our spot in life’s garden.
About the author:
Michelle Terry’s work has been published in NASCAR Illustrated and in four online journals, Front Porch Journal, Running on Sober, Holistic Journey, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, and Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing. Her work is forthcoming in Storyteller Magazine. She blogs for MamaMick (main blog), Ps and Qs (photography), and The Hidden Hummingbird Diaries (poetry and fiction). She has attended the WordPress, Zero to Hero Blogging workshop (January 2014) and the Long Ridge Writing Course (1995–1996).
Terry has a BS in dietetics and nutrition and was a registered clinical dietician for ten years. Since 2001 she has worked for Merck and Co. as a professional sales representative and a solutions consultant.
When she is not working or wrangling her two children, she maintains a prodigious garden on her six-acre property. She stays active by running marathons, adventure races, and Tuff Mudders; she also enjoys boxing and yoga.