Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Last night we had a small dinner party to celebrate Dick's birthday. We're all hungry for spring, so I brought out the tablecloth with the embroidered roses and my aunt's Adams china with the stylized flowers and birds. This morning as I put the china away, I turned it over to see if the name of the pattern was stamped on the back and it was: "Country Meadow". I long ago realized, that although she was a career woman whose job and inclination took her all around the world and who lived in cities all her life, my Aunt Jean was a country girl at heart and collected things that reminded her of the country and her homeplace which actually was on a farm in New Jersey.

I have a lot of her things and they all reflect the tug of the country life: paintings of farmhouses and country cottages, books (especially the Stillmeadow series by Gladys Taber), transferware cups and saucers depicting country scenes and, of course, her china. Even when she traveled, the places she enjoyed the most were the ones that evoked memories of the gently rolling hills of Somerset county New Jersey where the rest of my family lived.

My grandparents moved to the farm on Valley Road in Millington after my aunt was grown up and in the Army nursing corps during World War II, so she never really lived there, but she visited nearly every weekend after the war. As a little girl I looked forward to her visits. She always had time to cook something special, carve a pumpkin, teach me to use watercolors, hunt for violets and wild strawberries or read to me. I now recognize that those weekends "home" were a way for her to enfold herself back into the family and so the farm became the focus of that connection and no matter where she lived or traveled, she thought of it as home.

I come from a long line of farmers. My grandfather, bless his soul, was a traveling salesman, but wore himself out on the farm after he got home from work each day. Driven by a need to feed a family of five, he grew vegetables, kept a cow and sold milk, tomatoes and corn from a roadside stand. His father was a dairyman, his uncles were farmers in Hunterdon and Union counties. My grandmother's people were farmers too - her relations had a big apple farm in upstate New York - so it's no wonder that I grew up with dirt under my fingernails and the scent of newly turned earth in my nose.

I have lived in cities all my life as well but always felt the tug of country life and that's undoubtedly how we ended up here in rural Maine. In a way, my whole family has led me back here.

In my daydream I am five or maybe six years old. It is late spring and I am sitting on the little step in front of the tool shed, or the “little house” as we called it. In my lap is a pot of earth and sprouting from the earth is the crinkled leaf that will be a marigold. I planted the seeds in Sunday school weeks ago and it has finally sprouted. When they bloom, the marigolds will be a bright, metallic yellow like the foil-wrapped chocolate coins I found in my Christmas stocking. The sun is very warm on my face and legs - and on my feet, bare for the first time this year. Behind me the little house is filled with tools, machinery, nails, and paint. It is cool and dark in there from having been shut up all winter and an intoxicating smell of machine oil wafts out the door and mingles with the lush scent of the lilacs blooming in the shade against the old house.

Straight ahead of me I can see my grandfather’s head bobbing along beyond the honeysuckle hedge as he maneuvers the old tractor up and down the field making rows for planting. I can’t see her, but I know that behind the tractor my Aunt Joyce is walking along, grumpily feeding seed corn into the furrows he is making. On this side of the hedge bordering the yard, the ample form of my grandmother bends over the flower border. She is weeding or transplanting or simply peering at the earth to see what is coming up there. Next to her stands her tiny sister, my Great Aunt Mame, holding an enamel bucket of scraps from breakfast to take out to the to compost heap.

Next to the house, in the shade of the lilacs, my mother is on her knees, her gloved hands patting bright red geraniums into the earth. Behind the geraniums is a thick growth of snowberry bush. My father is toiling along the strip of grass next to her cutting a crisp, pale path through dark, new grass with the old push mower. Behind me in the little house, my Uncle Al is tinkering with the gas-powered mower with which he will cut the big back yard.

My Aunt Jean walks up to me from the old barn and in her hands are the first red, ripe wild strawberries from the tangle out back. In the little basket swinging from her arm is a bunch of violets and lily of the valley that she has picked from the sunny corner near an old foundation where they are growing wild.

From my spot on the steps I can see the ancient catalpa tree in the front yard is just beginning to bloom - some of its orchid-like blossoms already scattering across the grass. And on a sudden breeze the scent of the sun-warmed strawberry bush out by the mailbox rushes over me. I breathe, and breathe, and breathe it all in.

We are all so different, my aunts and uncle, parents, grandparents and I. My grandfather is a hardware salesman, my Aunt Joyce is still in high school. My mother is a laboratory technician at the VA hospital nearby; my father, newly discharged from the Marines, works in the office there. My Uncle Al is a car mechanic, my Aunt Jean, home for the weekend, is a nurse. My Aunt Mame is a dental assistant and my grandmother is…well, my grandmother: cook, laundress, head gardener, seamstress, decision maker, and leader of the pack.

But at this virtual moment, which is really the distillation of so many moments from my childhood, we are all gardeners.