By Amy Gesenhues
My grandmother turned 101 years old on April 3. She has survived being born in 1917. World War II. Joe McCarthy. The Korean War. Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. She is a devout Catholic who survived a divorce in a deeply rooted Catholic community. She survived being a single, working mother of six kids during the 1970s. She also survived the death of her first son, and probably a million tiny heartbreaks I know nothing about.
Through all of these tragedies and losses and survivals, there has been a garden.
When my grandmother was young, her family’s main crop was strawberries. She talks about what it was like to grow the heart-shaped fruit in her 1997 autobiography, From My Window: “We planted them in the Spring and hoed and plowed them all that summer. Then the next Spring we picked them. They were a hard crop to grow and depend on, but they were what we planted, picked and sold to make most of the money we needed for the rest of the year.”
They also planted potatoes and cabbage and corn and tomatoes and beans. Pumpkins, cantaloupes, watermelons, and cucumbers.
Grandma said the cucumbers were a good crop for them. “The growing season was so short and they could stand the dry summers of the Ohio Valley,” she wrote. “It only took them six weeks to grow, and we would pick them every other day for over a month.”
She said picking the cucumbers was a back-breaking job, and she is the toughest woman I know.
The garden I first remember is the one my grandmother and grandfather started at their house in the two, maybe three acres of land between their home and the creek at the bottom of Jenny Lane in Floyds Knobs. I don’t know what year the first garden was put there, but it continued to be planted well past their divorce and after the death of their son. He was only 26 when he drowned at Buffalo Trace Lake. His name was Norman. He was my dad.
Last year, on the 40th anniversary of his death, a cousin shared the following memory of him on my Facebook page: “I don’t have any really clear memories of your dad. There is one, though, when the family was planting the big garden in your Grandma’s yard. Everyone was kneeled down, carefully planting seeds at just the right distance apart. Except your dad. He had a handful of seeds – peas, I think – and he was hunched over, walking briskly, letting them roll out of his hand like hewas eating peanuts. Someone was grousing athim about not doing it right and then following his row, re-placing the seeds carefully, movingeach one an inch or so.”
My cousin said he remembers being off to the side, playing in the dirt when my dad came by with a grin and asked him, “My way is better, don’t you think?” I am grateful to have this memory. My dad sowing seeds in the garden. Doing things his way.
Grandma’s garden has since relocated to the other side of the property from where it once was. Instead of being in front of her house – which is now my uncle’s home – it is across the street, in front of the house where another one of my cousins lives. She has two toddlers.
Our family keeps growing, and with each passing year, there is a garden. In 2001, one of my cousins started a garden log to archive every crop our family plants, harvests and cans. It is a small spiral notebook with a green cover that up until last year, was kept on top of our grandmother’s refrigerator.
An entry dated July 1, 2004, reads: Canned 56 quarts of green beans. Vicki and Lucy picked one row for this canning.
The time it took to pick the beans is in parentheses, (2½ hours). The entry includes a bulleted list of everyone who helped stem and can the green beans: Grandma, Janice F., Doug, Jan, Joe. Beside Doug’s name, in parentheses, is a note that he only received partial credit because he arrived “very” late. Jan was noted as a late arrival too. Joe’s name included the following citation: Cut very little with lots of complaining. All of these details listed in parentheses beside their names.
An entry from August 13, 2013, says the corn didn’t come in that year. Instead, two bushels were bought from Ralph Fenwick. Parentheses ($35). After grandma deemed it fresh enough, Emily, Junnie, Vicki, JJ and Jan shucked and cleaned it, while Molly, Eileen and P3 (short for Paul the third) played in the basement. JJ wanted it noted that she pulled out a worm from an already boiled year of corn, and that she was there from the beginning. Parentheses (9:30am).
This small notebook is so much more than the food my family has harvested for the last almost 20 years. It’s a record of what we talk about when we’re sitting around our grandmother’s table, chucking corn, canning beans, eating. It’s a handwritten confessional, showing all the ways we care for and nurture each other. I think of these small moments, the quiet details within the parentheses, as clues to the ways we’ve repaired each of our family’s tiny heartbreaks – from my dad’s death to all sufferings that were left unsaid.
My grandmother had six children. Those six children had 16 children, and I am one of them.
I have two kids of my own now, and we all still eat food from her garden. When my son was three, still in a car seat riding home from Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house, he said her cream corn – made with the ears of corn cleaned and chucked from the garden – was magic. I can think of no better word to define it.