As Published in the Woodford County Journal
July 29, 2010
My Grandma Hansel was a hard woman to know. She was stern, austere—I saw her frown more often than smile. Her anger always frightened me, as I constantly thought I was in trouble for unknown misdeed.
She died when I was about 6 years old, so my memories of her were as a small child visiting her and Grandpa Hansel’s home near Terre Haute, Indiana. They had an old farm house on a few acres of land.
When we would visit from our small town near Indianapolis, we would pile out of the van—all 7 of us—and go around the house, past the kitchen door, by the root cellar where grandma cultivated her African violets.
I remember vividly going past the house lined with grandma’s flower beds, with large geodes and other stones from grandpa’s rock collection scattered around them.
We would walk by the garage, a barn-like structure that was full of equipment and tools and, well, stuff, up to the rafters. Attached to the garage was an outhouse.
I’m sure that many of you remember outhouses. This one was a two-holer that Grandpa had built and attached to the garage so young hoodlums couldn’t tip it over on Halloween. Grandpa didn’t put a bathroom in the house until the mid-1970s.
Beyond the buildings, the back lawn opened up to a magnificent garden. My eyes would widen as I took in the scene--my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles brothers and sisters and cousins all milling about in the garden.
First, I would look through the tall corn stalks--as tall as sky-scrapers to me. I’d see a cousin peering back from the other end of the row, and we’d wave at each other.
Past the walls of corn, the garden opened up to plants with vines and leaves reaching out and overlapping one another. There were tomatoes of various colors and every kind of pepper one would want. She had varieties of squash and there were always potatoes; peas; carrots; radishes; turnips; pole beans, with their vines twirling around the tall sticks rising up from the ground…and kohl rabbi.
It was a root vegetable we would eat straight from the garden. I don’t even remember washing off the dirt! Even my picky-eater siblings liked it—it had a mild, slightly sweet taste as I recall. I haven’t had it sine then, because I’ve never found it in any store or vegetable stand.
Off to the side, in a place of honor it seemed, was an asparagus bed. Did you know that when you plant asparagus you don’t see the fruits of your labor for two years? I was always amazed at that, especially since I hate asparagus. But for Grandma, it was worth the wait and effort.
My grandmother spent all her time in the garden, planting, tilling, weeding, coaxing. My mom has stories from her childhood of grandma attempting to make dinner for the family.
She would put on a pot to boil, and go back to the garden. By the time she remembered to check the pot, there would be a hole in the bottom because all the liquid had boiled away. Consequently, my grandfather did most of the cooking.
When Grandma was in the garden, she came alive. She smiled, she laughed….you don’t know how rare it was to see my grandma laugh. I remember the sound of it, the way her eyes would crinkle and glisten as she talked to anyone who cared about her garden.
Sitting beside her on the big swing under the willow tree, I learned skills I rarely use anymore--shucking corn, shelling peas, snapping beans. But I also learned skills I still use--compassion, humor, curiosity as I listened to the adults talk and laugh and share family stories.
This is how my grandmother was able to express her love for her children and grandchildren. It was confusing to me, because this image of her was so different than the demanding and disapproving one I usually experienced.
As a child, I didn’t know who the real Grandma was, but looking back on that time, I realize now that both images were true and real.
Love is complicated and messy sometimes. At times, love is difficult to give and just as hard to receive. But love comes in so many packages, so many shapes and sizes. Love comes in unexpected ways, and we don’t always recognize it when it appears.
Sometimes it takes us years, even decades to look back and see clearly how an ordinary act held within it so much love. And at other times, love is immediately recognizable.
In my mind, I am about 4 years old looking at all the vines weaving around the tomato cages and sprawling out over the ground in Grandma’s garden. Those tomatoes looked like red and yellow jewels hidden within the prickly vines, but I knew better than to touch the forbidden fruit.
So I stand there lost in a daydream about a heroic girl fending her way through a vine-like forest to reach the lost treasure. Suddenly I become aware of my grandmother’s gaze on me. I look up into her eyes with more than a bit of fear, even though she is smiling at me. I always thought she could see right into my soul.
After a moment, without saying a word, she reaches into those tangled, sticky vines and plucks the reddest, most ripe tomato she sees. She hands it to me, the smile now enveloping her face and making her eyes sparkle.
“Here,” she says as she hands me the precious fruit. “Eat it just like an apple. You don‘t even need salt”
I do, and she is right, and it tastes like manna from heaven. For one clear moment, I know that she loves me, and that’s all that matters.