Some of my earliest memories, from the 1950s, are of my mother’s huge garden, necessitated by the need to feed 11 children on a small farm in southern Minnesota. On the west side, the garden was edged by a row of hollyhocks that seemed to grow 10 feet tall. Grapevines climbed the fence on the south and east, and a huge old Northwest Greening apple tree stood to the north. Where the hollyhocks ended was a row of what must have been wild plum trees, unlike any that I have been able to find since. They bore large quantities of small, purple, freestone fruit that ripened fairly late in the Fall. The plums were only the size of stuffed olives, but bursting with flavor and quite firm, so I could stuff my pockets with them and snack as I did chores.
All Summer long, Mom picked green beans, red beets, tomatoes, sweet corn, peas, and her favorite, ground cherries (she turned the marble-sized yellow fruits into a seedy, acidic jam that makes my mouth pucker just remembering it). Mom would spend many days canning all the produce to provide us food all Winter. All the jars were carried upstairs to the “Fruit Room,” since we had no basement or cellar.
Dad died when I was 11, and we moved to a small house in town. Gardening became one chore too many for Mom, trying to raise a large family alone. But the seeds had been planted in me.
I was working my way through college—this was the Vietnam war era—when I was notified that my student deferment had been revoked: I was a credit shy of full-time student status. Since Kathy, my high-school sweetheart, and I were about to get married, my only option was to sign up for the Navy’s 120 Delay Enlistment Program, so I could avoid the draft and report for active duty in 120 days. After basic training, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for nearly a year. Our first son was born there. We were often short of groceries and wished we could raise a garden to help us get by.
Following my tour of duty in Vietnam, Kathy and I returned to our home town in Minnesota so our children—we now had a daughter—could know their grandparents. We agreed that a place in the country with space for a garden and for the kids to run was our goal. We found a large brick country school on two acres only a few miles from the farm I was born on. Turning a one-room school into a home was our first priority, but then came a garden. With a growing family—which eventually included six children—we needed it! This led to relearning how to can tomatoes, some years over 100 quarts. Kathy and I spent many hours canning and preserving in our tiny kitchen. We marveled at the jeweled colors of the jars of tomatoes, green and wax beans, pickles, applesauce, and jam. We used a dehydrator to make fruit leather from small bright-red crabapples that grew outside our bedroom window. (It was devoured in what seemed like seconds—after all the work that went into it.) Banana chips were made from slightly overripe bananas bought for pennies a pound, and excess onions were dried for soups and stews. The dehydrator also made many, many quarts of yogurt. We froze strawberries or made them into jam; rhubarb, likewise, as well as currants I found growing near the house.
The work was good.
Years went by quickly, as they do. Our children grew up and left. After being forced out of her job, Kathy announced that she “needed to go to the mountains to heal.” We found that peace and healing in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming, but eventually the pull of being nearer to the grandchildren proved too strong, and we returned to Minnesota. Gardening was now confined to several raised beds. Even so, my garden soon produced too much for the two of us. Luckily, the grandkids inherited our appreciation for vegetables, so I had an outlet for excess tomatoes, squash, onions, peppers, and herbs. Without the pressure to feed a family, I could finally lavish a bit more attention on flowers and ornamentals.
Actually, “lavish” is way too strong a word. I prefer perennials that require little more than occasional watering and Fall cleanup. Consequently, much of the front yard is taken up by crocuses and tulips, followed by iris, phlox, lilies, columbine, Dutchman’s breeches, Russian sage, a couple of yarrows and spiderworts, two rosebushes, and daisies, echinacea, and chrysanthemums.
The one finicky flower I grew was an ever-expanding number of calla lilies, which in our harsh climate need to be dug in the Fall and replanted in the Spring. I grew them because they were the flowers Kathy carried in our wedding those many years ago. Kathy, being a stoic Norwegian, never said much about the flowers, but I know she secretly enjoyed them. As far as romantic gestures go, I’ll leave it to you to judge, but it felt right to me.
Last Spring, about the time we Minnesotans start to hope that the weather might become bearable again, Kathy suffered a massive stroke, with no warning and no hope of recovery. She passed away four days later, leaving me with the old question: Why? Why was the most kind and loving person I have ever known gone so suddenly? All her life she had quietly shared her love with me, her children and grandchildren, and friends. She had been my example of faith and trust, encouraging me in my business. She had been the one to worry about how we could pay the bills.
Without her, there seemed little reason to carry on the old planting ritual. My family and friends assured me that Kathy would still enjoy her calla lilies, so I planted them again.
The following Summer it was cooler than normal, with frequent rains. My riot of flowers in the front yard outdid themselves, growing tall and blooming profusely. They attracted legions of butterflies: Monarchs, a Blue Swallowtail, and Painted Ladies, much to the delight of Liam, my 4-year-old neighbor.
One sunny Summer day as I walked past the calla lilies, echinacea, and daisies to pick up the mail, Painted Lady butterflies by the hundreds fluttered by me. I stopped to watch in wonder and delight at their sheer number and their muted grey-brown and orange colors. Then I lifted my face to the sun, watching as they slowly fluttered off.
That night I had the most vivid dream. Kathy and I were look-ing at the flowers and butterflies. The dream was in vibrant color, and I could talk to Kathy and feel her presence. I was so happy to talk to her, even knowing in my dream that she was dead—but she was there.
I asked her, “Are you really still here to keep an eye on me?”
She replied gently, using her favorite term for me:
“You silly old man, who do you think sent all the butterflies?” ❖
This article was published originally in 2020, in GreenPrints Issue #122.