If you look in my parents’ photo albums, you’ll see pictures of a little redheaded girl toddling around Kingwood Center and burying her nose in every flower she sees. Kingwood is a 47-acre estate turned public garden, so that’s a lot of flowers. Built in 1926 for Mr. Charles King, Kingwood Center became Mansfield, Ohio’s public garden back in 1953.
That’s just the beginning of the photos. Since we visited Kingwood almost every week after church services, there are pictures of me with my closest friends near a fountain in the formal gardens, ones of me wandering through rose gardens and herb mazes, and one of me about to fall into the duck pond trying to catch a mallard.
When I was about 13 or 14, my mother decided that her homeschooled teen should volunteer somewhere in the local community. So we met with Kay, the volunteer coordinator at Kingwood. She told us the gardeners didn’t want any more teenage volunteers—they felt they were too unreliable—but she would let me help her cut flowers for drying and pressing.
That’s how I started collecting grandmothers.
When Kay and I cut flowers for pressing, we’d bring them back to the basement of the Mansion for my fellow volunteers to press in old phone books. These ladies were what my teenage self conceived of as “very old”—about the same age as my Grandma Baker and Grandma Dean. I thought they were wonderful.
Every week, Kay and I would go out in a golf cart and come back with baskets full of bottlebrush buckeye, hardy geranium, and potentilla. We’d unload them on the table, and the ladies would put them into phone books. Much of our volunteer time was spent visiting over peach iced tea and day-old pastries donated by local bakeries. We talked about our gardens, and I listened to the ladies complain about teenagers (“Except for you, dear,” they’d say, pat-ting my hand). They told me about the trials of growing old, but never in a way that made it seem scary. I knew that growing up, and then getting old, was inevitable, but I also knew that when it happened I wanted to be as engaged, interesting, and slightly irreverent as these ladies with little twinkles in their eyes.
One day, when I was 17, my Grandma Baker died. I didn’t tell my adopted grandmothers. I just went in to volunteer the next day like normal. Yet I felt comforted just being there among my friends and the piles of dried flowers we were turning into bookmarks for the Kingwood gift shop. It seemed easier, knowing that my adopted grandmothers were still there. ❖