Garden Grandmothers

A springtime fig leaf.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality recently and the often forgotten histories of places. My grandmother, born and raised on a California fruit ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, will turn 101 this June. I was fortunate enough to live with her for two years when she was in her mid-nineties and got to hear many of her stories about life in the country. We live just across the street from her now, and she sometimes comes to sit in the garden and watch things grow.

An 82-year-old woman told me yesterday that she has a theory about heaven. She told me she believes that we have to find heaven in this lifetime, that all of our earthly blessings are enough, and that our lives are the heaven we deserve. She said that the finality of death only enhances the profound awesomeness of life. Amen, and yikes!

Last year Kelly set up her orchard ladder and pruned an old fig tree at the back of our garden. The tree is slowly dying, rotting from a bad pruning cut close to its center. Still, it produced loads of delicious green figs last year, and it leafs out with the same delicate new foliage each spring. In her pruning of dead and dying wood, Kelly removed a large branch, and we noticed the fine concentric rings of yearly growth. Out of curiosity, I counted the rings, using a magnifying glass to distinguish the tiny lines.

Turns out our fig tree is over 120 years old. I counted about 113 rings before, at a quarter inch from the outside edge of the branch, they truly became too tiny to distinguish. Who knows how much older the tree is. Even with a conservative estimate of 120 years, that puts the planting date at 1892, nearly 30 years before our house was built in 1919.

The grandmother fig tree.

How did the tree get here? What else was growing on the land that is now our garden? I find these questions tantalizing, even as I recognize that there is no way to know for sure. So much information is lost in just a hundred years. I can’t know the lives of the people who came before us here. I can’t know what knowledge they took to the grave. What was common sense for one generation can be almost completely unknown a few generations down the line, made obsolete by technological “advances” and changes in lifestyle. My grandmother was the fastest prune plum picker in her family. I have never picked a prune plum, let alone for a living, and don’t know that I would recognize one if I saw it.

With all the recent talk about the release of the 1940 census records, I got online last week and did a little poking around. I know a fair amount about my own recent family history. What I was more interested in was the history of our house and garden. In the scheme of things, census records don’t yield much. I can’t know whether the former inhabitants of this house grew vegetables or kept chickens, and I can’t hear their life stories.

Still, seeing the handwritten names of the first owners of our house sent chills through me, and subsequently discovering the 1931 newspaper obituary for Lillian, the house’s first matriarch, brought me into a collision between a strange sense of intimacy and dissociation.

I think of this house, this garden, this life, as mine, and my place in them as stable and certain. But gardens, whether wild or tended, have always grown here, and animals and people before us have made homes. The poet Mary Oliver asks, “[W]hat is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” I will keep seeking my earthly heaven among growing things.

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