From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

Grandma’s Garden

Each year, my Grandmother Ines planted tulips in her flower garden and looked forward to their springtime beauty with childlike anticipation. Under her loving guardianship, they sprang up each April, faithfully, and she was never disappointed. But she said the real flowers that decorated her life were her grandchildren.

I, for one, was not going to play along.

I was sent to stay with my grandmother when I was 16 years old. My parents lived overseas and I was a very troubled young woman, full of false wisdom and anger at them for their inability to cope with or understand me. An unhappy, disrespectful teenager, I was ready to drop out of school.

Grandma was a tiny woman, towered over by her own children and their not-yet-grown offspring, and she possessed a classic, old-fashioned prettiness. Her hair was dark and elegantly styled, and her eyes were of the clearest blue, vibrant, and glittering with energy and intensity. She was ruled by an extraordinary loyalty to family, and she loved as profoundly and sincerely as a child. Still, I thought my grandmother would be easier to ignore than my parents.

I moved into her humble farmhouse silently, skulking about with my head hung low and eyes downcast like an abused pet. I had given up on others, instead cocooning myself within a hard shell of apathy. I refused to allow another soul admittance to my private world because my greatest fear was that someone would discover my secret vulnerabilities. I was convinced life was a bitter struggle better fought on one’s own.

I expected nothing from my grandmother but to be left alone, and planned to accept nothing less. She, however, did not give up so easily.

School began and I attended classes occasionally, spending the rest of my days in my pajamas, staring dully at the television set in my bedroom. Not taking the hint, Grandma burst through my door each morning like an unwelcome ray of sunshine.

“Good morning!” she’d sing, cheerfully raising the blinds from my window. I pulled my blanket over my head and ignored her.

When I did stray from my bedroom, I was barraged with a string of well-meant questions from her regarding my health, my thoughts and my views on the world in general. I answered in mumbled monosyllables, but somehow she was not discouraged. In fact, she acted as if my meaningless grunts fascinated her; she listened with as much solemnity and interest as if we were engaged in an intense conversation in which I had just revealed an intimate secret. On those rare occasions when I happened to offer more than a one-word response, she would clap her hands together joyously and smile hugely, as if I had presented her with a great gift.

At first, I wondered if she just didn’t get it. However, though she wasn’t an educated woman, I sensed she had the simple common-sense smarts that come from natural intelligence. Married at age 13 during the Great Depression, she learned what she needed to know about life by raising five children through difficult economic times, cooking in other people’s restaurants and eventually running a restaurant of her own.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when she insisted I learn to make bread. I was such a failure at kneading that Grandma would take over at that stage of the process. However, she wouldn’t allow me to leave the kitchen until the bread was set out to rise. It was during those times, when her attention was focused away from me and I stared at the flower garden outside the window of the kitchen, that I first began to talk to her. She listened with such eagerness that I was sometimes embarrassed.

Slowly, as I realized my grandmother’s interest in me did not wear off with the novelty of my presence, I opened up to her more and more. I began to secretly yet fervently look forward to our talks.

When the words finally came to me, they would not stop. I began attending school regularly, and rushed home each afternoon to find her sitting in her usual chair, smiling and waiting to hear a detailed account of the minutes of my day.

One day of my junior year, I hurried through the door to Grandma’s side and announced, “I was named editor of the high school newspaper!”

She gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth. More moved than I could ever be, she seized both of my hands in hers and squeezed them, fiercely. I looked into her eyes, which were sparkling like mad. She said, “I like you so much, and I am very proud of you!”

Her words hit me with such force that I couldn’t respond. Those words did more for me than a thousand “I love you’s.” I knew her love was unconditional, but her friendship and pride were things to earn. To receive them both from this incredible woman made me begin to wonder whether there was, in fact, something likable and worthy within myself. She awakened in me a desire to discover my own potential, and a reason to allow others to know my vulnerabilities.

On that day, I decided to try to live as she did—with energy and intensity. I was suddenly flushed with an appetite to explore the world, my mind and the hearts of others, to love as freely and unconditionally as she had. And I realized that I loved her—not because she was my grandmother, but because she was a beautiful individual who had taught me what she knew about caring for herself and for others.

My grandmother passed away in the springtime, nearly two years after I came to live with her, and two months before I graduated from high school.

She died encircled by her children and grandchildren, who held hands and remembered a life filled with love and happiness. Before she left this world, each of us leaned over her bed, with moist eyes and faces, and kissed her tenderly. As my turn came, I kissed her gently on the cheek, took her hand and whispered, “I like you so much, Grandma, and I am very proud of you!”

Now, as I prepare to graduate from college, I often think of my grandmother’s words, and hope she would still feel proud of me. I marvel at the kindness and patience with which she helped me emerge from a difficult childhood to a young womanhood filled with peace. I picture her in the springtime, as the tulips in her garden, and we, her off spring, still bloom with an enthusiasm equaled only by her own. And I continue to work to make sure she will never be disappointed.

Lynnette Curtis

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