My Grandmother's Garden
MY grandmother, whose name I bear, departed from earth long before my eyes opened to its light. She died so young, indeed, that her own children remember her but dimly. No portrait of her has come down to us. It was not the day of cameras and kodaks. The photograph had not taken shape. Even its precursor, the daguerreotype, was just simmering in the brain of its inventor.
Her husband was, in the phrasing of the time, a man “ well to do,” and it seems strange that he should not have given permanence to the face he loved, in an oil painting, or in one of the quaint and dainty miniatures then in vogue.
Of her especial belongings not many remain. A few articles of furniture and some bits of old china are distributed among her descendants. Her wedding ring, a heavy band of gold, was cherished by her daughter, and has been kept in that branch of the family. She did, however, leave one thing of real value, and that was her garden,—a charming one, too, — filled with old-fashioned shrubs and flowers.
This garden came early into my possession, not by legacy from her, nor by direct gift from others, nor was it ever my especial property in a pecuniary sense. My ownership was not so tangible. It was partly accidental and partly temperamental. We lived in the ancestral home; that was the accidental part. The underlying temperamental cause was, I am sure, a love of every “ green growing thing.” That love dominated my childhood, and it must have been strong in her, since in her brief married life, crowded with household duties and the care of her young children, she yet found time to originate and preserve a garden large and beautiful for that period.
“ A garden,” says Bacon, “ is the purest of all human pleasures; it is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.”
The garden which I remember is a pleasant picture.
A sloping green lawn led down to it; a high board fence enclosed it on two sides, shutting it in from the street, and a row of tall currant bushes stood on the other side.
The fence was far above my head in those early years. I could not see over it, nor be seen from the outside, yet I could hear the sound of wheels and the voices of passers-by. This gave a delightful sense of seclusion, and as I wandered about among the flowers, I thought it a veritable Eden.
The garden, which was large (it seemed very large to me then), had eight square beds, with narrow graveled paths around and between them, and two wide borders running along by the fence. The beds, raised a little above the paths, were enclosed by boards to keep the earth from falling out.
In those days, a garden was not usually arranged for its effect as a whole. There was no special grouping of plants in masses, either for foliage or color. Each plant was cherished for itself, and was put where it seemed best for it individually, or often, of course, where it was most convenient.
The shrubs and most of the taller plants were in the borders. The centre of one was occupied by a large and thrifty lilac bush (it might well have been called a tree), which reared its head high above the fence, and was flanked on each side by smaller ones. In the blossoming season, garden, house, and yard were filled and permeated with the rich fragrance. Lilacs could not have been plentiful in the town at that time, for children, and even older persons, were constantly coming to ask for them.
“ Please give me a laylock,” was often the form of the request. It became something of a tax upon the time and patience of the household to supply these frequent demands, and at last it seemed best to appoint certain hours for the purpose. As soon as I was considered old enough to mount a step-ladder, and to use a pair of garden-scissors without injuring myself or others, the task of supplying the children devolved upon me. Wednesday and Saturday noons, on their way home from school, were their appointed hours. I remember well what an exciting experience it was to look down from that lofty perch at the eager faces of those below, and to drop the coveted flowers into their outstretched hands. I wondered how it would seem to be on the other side of the fence, looking up at those fragrant purple clusters, the only visible sign of what was within, waiting for one’s own meagre share in the distribution.
In the angle made by the two sides of the fence, was a tall white rose-bush, which, in favorable summers, bore its white drift of blossoms to the very topmost edge of the dark protecting wall. These roses were especially beautiful in the early morning. How often have I stolen out of the house at dawn, to watch the half-opened buds unfold, each one of creamy hue, with a warm salmon-pink flush at the centre. Later in the day, fullblown and wearied by the fervent kisses of the sun, the flush faded, and the creamy tint turned to snowy whiteness.
This rose-bush is in existence now, still bearing similar beautiful, creamy flowers. It never fails to blossom, and its earliest buds open each year about June 20.
In a sunny part of the border were the double damask roses, rows upon rows of them. Low and crooked and of unpromising appearance the bushes were in themselves, but what a lavish wealth of color and fragrance they sent forth in their season! Aaron’s rod, that budded and blossomed, could scarcely have appeared a greater miracle. Perfect in shape, inspiring in color, of rich yet delicate perfume, these roses were royally beautiful. It stirred one’s blood to look at them.
Then there were multitudes of single roses, of the same soft yet glowing color; not less attractive in their graceful simplicity than the double ones. These bushes, like the others, were low and twisted, and both were given to homesickness, and did not bear transplanting well. Leave them where they were, though cramped and crowded, in soil sterile and grass-bound, yet they would live and flourish; move them, and they soon dwindled and died. There were also blush roses and moss roses. The blush rose had an exquisite pale-pink coloring, and the buds were very beautiful, but when full-blown they were seldom perfect. The moss roses were also more beautiful in the bud, as the mossy calyx was then shown to better advantage. Both these varieties were subject to blight and mildew.
We occasionally examined our rosebushes, and picked off a few little green worms by hand, but I do not remember that we had to keep up any systematic warfare with insect pests. Now, all sorts of creeping and flying things infest rosebushes; even the elm beetle does not seem averse to a dessert of rose-leaves.
Miss Larcom says in one of her poems, And roses grow, wherever men will let them. In these day’s they seem to grow only where men will stand by them and fight their enemies.
At one end of the border was asparagus, not grown for eating, but allowed to develop its fine and lace-like foliage. Near by were clumps of hollyhocks, stately and tall, with close-clinging blossoms of white and pink and red. Tall fox-gloves, white and purple, blue monkshood and prince’s feather were not far away.
In one corner was a tangle of sweet briar, or eglantine, thorny and forbidding to the touch, yet nevertheless a delight all the year round. In spring and early summer, the tender leaves, wet with the dew and the rain, sent forth spicy odors, that seemed to be the very breath of awakening life. Later it was clothed, as with a garment, by hundreds of blossoms, frail circlets of exquisite pink petals, with golden stamens at the centre. In the autumn, behold! each blossom had become a gem, a seed-vessel of ruby hue, outshining the reddest leaves in brilliancy.
Edgings of box were set along the borders. The popularity of box has waned since then, but with its compact growth, and its small, firm, shining leaves, it is still a satisfactory plant. When vigorous and well cared for, it has a clean, slightly bitter odor; “ the fragrance of Eternity,” Dr. Holmes calls it. “ This,” he says, “ is one of the odors which carry us out of time into the abysses of the unbeginning past.” One of the borders had also an edging of the striped or ribbon-grass — a diminutive species of bamboo — and another of moss pink, a lowly heathlike plant, literally covered in early spring with a mass of deep-pink bloom.
In our garden, according to the custom of the time, four beds were given to herbs useful in cooking or for simple household remedies. There was balm, soft and comfortable in aspect as in name; sage, with pretty blue-green leaves, and ragged blue blossoms; thorough wort or boneset, used for colds, and as a spring tonic; wormwood, pennyroyal, and saffron, the latter always associated in my mind with measles. One bed was filled with small herbs, such as chives, mint, thyme, summer savory, and parsley; another, with something we called pot-marjoram, probably sweet marjoram. Over this bed, in the blossoming season, the bees and the butterflies hovered continually. When a child, I was afraid of the bees at first; but I found that if I did not molest them, they had no desire to disturb me, and their busy humming soon came to have a cheerful, sociable sound.
The distinctive odors of these herbs come back to me now, just as they exhaled in dewy mornings or under the noontide sun. I remember, too, the look and smell of each, when, dried and tied in bunches, ready for winter use, they hung under the rafters of a dark garret.
The remaining beds were devoted to flowers. The central space in two of them was given to peonies. Some of our older neighbors called them “pinys.” The peony was known to the Greeks, the Chinese, and the Japanese, and highly prized by them all. “ Flowers of prosperity ” is a Japanese name for it. It is thrifty and hardy, enduring well the cold of winter in New England. Its dark green foliage is always clean and healthy, free from blight and insects. Our peonies bore blooms of white and deep rich red. The great gorgeous blossoms made a fine showing in the garden, and were especially suitable for the adornment of large rooms, halls, and churches.
In the other two beds, the place of honor was given to tulips. The enthusiasm of the Dutch for this flower had reached its climax and begun to wane more than a century before, but its fame had spread to other lands, and it has never quite lost its prestige.
Our tulips grew taller than the newer varieties, and came somewhat later. When the pointed red tip of the first leaf began to peer above the soil, I felt that spring had really come. One by one, its successors pushed their way up and slowly uncurled, and then, out of their midst, suddenly, in a night as it were, shot up slender swaying stems each crowned with a folded bud. I cannot see a bunch of tulips now, even in a florist’s window, without recalling my childish rapture as the buds began to unfold. How beautiful they were, white, pink, red, yellow, sometimes striped in two colors, as pink and white, or purple and white! So brilliant is the coloring of the tulip that one thinks of it as a flower which loves the sun, but it loves only softly tempered rays; under strong sunshine it expands too quickly, then droops and shrivels.
The four corners of one bed were filled with fleur-de-lis,—flower-de-luce it was then called. With its lance-shaped leaves, its tall stem, its curled and crape-like petals of purest white or deep blue, it is indeed a stately flower. No wonder the French love it, and emblazon it on frieze and shield, on banner and crest.
In the corners of another bed were sweet-williams, the richly colored velvetlike petals upheld by rather stiff and clumsy stalks; London-pride, similar to sweet-william but taller, and with showy scarlet blossoms; honesty, whose chief attraction lies not in leaf or flower, but in its delicate silvery seed-pods; and bluebells, “ big bonnie blue bells,” Canterbury bells we called them.
Aldrich has made them the subject of one of his dainty poems: —
And modest folk, the daisies;
But Blue-bells of New England,
To you I give my praises.
To you fair phantoms in the sun,
Whom merry Spring discovers ;
With bluebirds for your laureates,
And honey bees for lovers.
One bed was bordered all round with pinks. There were single grass or snow pinks, pale in color, and of faint perfume, pure and delicate as Puritan maidens; double pinks, deeper in tint, of rich and spicy fragrance; and red pinks, the name seeming a misnomer, unless one is familiar with the leaf and blossom.
In the same bed were bachelor’s buttons, called also ragged sailors, and, in some countries, corn-flowers; larkspurs, with blossoms in all tints of blue and pink and purple, blending harmoniously like the colors in a Persian rug; and columbines, lovely nodding bells of pink and blue, beloved of poets, for their airy grace.
Salve my worst wounds,
Scattered about in the various beds were many other plants: phlox, lupine, rose-campion, catch-fly, sweet rocket, ragged robin, mullein pinks, balsams, and four-o’-clocks; each name awakening pleasant recollections, not only of the flower itself, but also of some association connected with it, I knew an old lady, a neighbor, who always put her teapot on the stove when her four-o’-clocks began to open.
“ Now popy seede in grounde is goode to throwe,” says an old writer. One bed was half-filled with these gay flowers. There were Oriental poppies, large and flame-colored, fringed white ones, and smaller ones in many shades of pink and vivid glowing reds.
“ The poppy,” says Ruskin, “ is painted glass. It never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it. Whenever it is seen against the light or with the light, always it is a flame, and warms the wind like a blown ruby.”
In this bed, too, were mourning brides, “ soft purple eyes,” as some one has called them; and marigolds, of dusky yellow, and herby odor, doubtless the “ Mary buds ” of Shakespeare.
Everywhere, in bed and border, was the little pansy or lady’s-delight, that flower of many lands and many names, favorite of the great Napoleon and of many less known men and women. These had no special nook, but wherever they could get a foothold, there they were, with their bright little faces upturned as if in welcome. This flower must have been always dearly loved, for it has so many quaint local names, pet names as it were, such as “ none so pretty,” and “ three faces under a hood.” Even its botanical name, Viola tricolor, is much more agreeable to eye and ear than are most botanical names. The French pensée, a thought or sentiment, is charming. Its Italian name means “ idle thoughts.” Shakespeare calls it Cupid’s flower.
It fell upon a little Western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it, “ Love in Idleness.”
It is one of the blossoms that Milton places in Eve’s couch : —
Pansies and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth, earth’s freshest, softest lap.
But of all its names, none is quite so dear as “ heart’s ease.”
Is still the heart’s ease that the poets knew.
It seems strange that the daffodil flower of the olden time as well as of the present, and the subject of such tender and delightful tributes from Herrick and Shakespeare and Wordsworth, should have been missing. I did not find it, but it may have been there in previous seasons. Some changes must doubtless have taken place during the many years that elapsed between my grandmother’s departure from her garden and my own advent therein.
In the late autumn came the chrysanthemums, not the gorgeous Japanese varieties of the present day, but modest flowers in shape and color, usually of white and golden and dull red. Very welcome they were in the chilly shortening days and very hardy too, defying early frosts, and blooming on until the close approach of winter.
There was one plant for which we had no definite name: I have since heard it called “ live forever,” and, locally, frogplant, blow-leaf, and pudding-bag plant. The leaves were thick, and by rubbing them gently between the thumb and forefinger, the epidermis could be loosened from the green pulp and blown into a bag. If one blew hard enough, the bag would burst with a satisfying pop.
When my young friends came to see me on summer afternoons, we often spent hours on the lawn or in the garden, and one of our amusements was making these bags. We also made lilac chains to hang about our necks, and larkspur wreaths, which we pressed and then fastened on cards.
My only memory of the garden not wholly delightful is connected with the currant bushes. I was sometimes required to pick currants for the table or for jelly. They were too acid to suit my childish taste; consequently I could not solace myself by eating them, and I found the work irksome. Looking back at those days now, I wonder at myself. To be picking currants in that garden, surrounded by my cherished flowers, seems only a part of it all, not less enjoyable than the rest.
Near the garden, and seeming really a part of it, since it grew over a trellised doorway opening out on the lawn, was a climbing honeysuckle, of a kind which at present seems to be dying out. Only now and then do we come across one, trained over a doorway or in a sheltered nook of some old estate. It has been discarded doubtless for faster growing and more hardy varieties, but none of them can equal it in the beauty and sweetness of its blossoms. These were deep pink in the bud; paling a little as they opened; turning then to pearly white, then to cream color, then to yellow, — all stages visible in the same cluster, and the whole giving forth the most exquisite indescribable perfume; a spicy breath of the wildwood mellowed by the rich scent of a hothouse favorite.
That dear old-fashioned garden; how I loved it! I used to spend hours there considering the plants; rejoicing with the thrifty, and trying to assist those that were backward or drooping; bidding each good-morning and good-night, not liking to pass any one by, lest it should feel the omission. I had never read Shelley’s Sensitive Plant, and knew not his Lady of the garden, she who was
An Eve in that Eden; a ruling grace.
If I had, I might have likened myself to her, in a minor and mundane way, for had I not
On those that were faint with the sunny beam.
The garden was a potent factor in most of my pleasures, and not in mine only; all the children of the family and the neighborhood shared in its benefits. How many choice nosegays have been gathered there and given to favorite friends! How many May baskets embellished with its treasures! How many June wreaths constructed out of its abundance!
Older persons, too, shared in its bounty. Communities were neighborly then, and scarcely a day passed that some one did not come to beg a sprig or two of marjoram or parsley, as “ seasoning; ” a little sage or balm, to make tea for an invalid; a few currants to “ whet up ” the appetite of some ailing relative.
There were no public greenhouses in town, and if a rural bride wanted a rose for her hair, or a bouquet for her hand, she sent some one to ask for it. When sorrowing friends wished to soften the grim fact of death by laying flowers about a loved one, they also came, and no one went away empty-handed.
Some years later, a favorite uncle, the youngest son of my grandmother, instituted certain changes in the garden. He had the currant bushes and all the herbs removed to the vegetable garden, and the space thus gained given to flowers.
Snowball trees were then in vogue, and a small one was set out in the centre of each bed vacated by the herbs. These grew rapidly and soon became thrifty trees, occupying far more than the space originally allotted to them. The showy white blossoms became ere long rivals of the lilac in popular affection.
“ Please give me a snowball,” was only a new form of an old request.
New varieties of roses were added: Scotch roses, spice roses, multifloras, Baltimore belles, beautiful indeed (all roses are beautiful), but not more so, and far less fragrant, than the ones already there.
Dahlias tall and stately, with curved, quill-like petals of velvet texture and richest tints, and asters in many colors and shades, were new acquisitions.
Among the smaller flowers were English daisies, fragrant violets, sweet peas, “ on tiptoe for a flight,” mignonette, day lilies, white and yellow, sweet and shortlived; the blue periwinkle, sometimes called myrtle, a lowly running plant with dark glossy leaves and flowers of purest azure; the forget-me-not, that tiny blossom, doubly a favorite for itself and for its name; and amaranth of such crisp and lasting texture as to seem an artificial product rather than a natural growth.
In the border was set a snowberry, bearing waxen fruit; a syringa, of almost cloying sweetness; Japanese lilies, and a tiger lily, beloved at least of one poet, for has not Aldrich written, —
The heavy Eastern lilies,
The gorgeous tiger lilies,
That in our garden grow.
One of my special favorites among the new plants was the Missouri flowering currant, a shrub with small yellow blossoms, opening so early as to seem a herald of the spring, and breathing forth especially at dawn or dusk an elusive fragrance in which there seemed no sensuous element.
Another of my favorites was the jouquil or poet’s narcissus, an exquisite flower, with an orange-yellow centre, and a circlet of pure white petals bending slightly backward toward the long, slender stem.
As the summers came and went, other plants crept into the garden, annuals, biennials, those growing from bulbs, and those that had to be housed in the winter; the crocus and hyacinth, lilies-ofthe-valley, convolvulus, candytuft, morning glories, geraniums of many kinds, petunias, salvias, gladioli, coreopsis, polyanthus, heliotrope, and flowering almond. A climbing rose; a fragrant, star-like clematis; a trumpet honeysuckle, beloved of humming birds; and later a wistaria, with graceful drooping plumes, made beautiful the trellised doorway.
In process of time, the fence was cut down in height, and later was replaced by one of a more open pattern, consequently the enclosure lost something of its character as a secluded retreat. The general arrangement of the beds, borders, and paths was, however, kept, and we still called it “ grandmother’s garden.”
But the fashion of the world changeth. Time is an iconoclast, and at length there came a day when it was decreed that the garden must go to make way for a larger expanse of lawn. The plants were removed to a space set apart for them in a yard at the back of the house, and the beds and paths were levelled. A part of the border was allowed to remain, and the vines over the doorway were untouched, but the garden as a whole, “ grandmother’s garden,” ceased there and then to exist.
At a period when Puritan asceticism had still a strong hold, such a garden must have had a softening and refining influence. Afterwards, and always while it lasted, it was a centre from which radiated those small interchanges and amenities that tend to make life less hard and prosaic.
And so to this grandmother, whose name I bear, yet who is, nevertheless, very much of a myth to me, I feel that I owe both gratitude and allegiance, not only for the happy days spent among her flowers, but also for the helpful and lasting influence thus thrown about my life.
Had she lived long enough on earth for me to become acquainted with her, the garden must, I am sure, have been a bond of union between us, and such it will doubtless become should I ever meet her in the Hereafter.