My Grandfather's Garden
It's the day before Easter, many years ago, and I'm watching my grandfather kneeling in the early morning on the damp grass at the border of his flower garden, tucking something into the holes he opens with quick, almost impatient, stabs of his narrow trowel. He works methodically, with the hint of an edginess that suggests he's always just a little ahead of himself, reaching for what might be a tulip bulb or scabiosa start in the tray by his side.
I can see my grandfather's hands and the way he moves them much more clearly than what he holds in them. He is working in the flower bed under the fig tree, one of the several beds he has carefully built into this tiny backyard behind the 1920s bungalow he and my grandmother bought in Palo Alto in 1950. Small as the beds are, he never crowds them. He finds a place for everything in the catalog, with a sense of the use of space that could best be described as thrift. His is not an ornamental or showy garden. He gardens, I think, more to create a crowd.
The fig tree that presides over this bed has grey-green bark with the texture of coarse skin that, like skin, seems to cover a body of long sinuous muscle rather than wood. The tree is low, less than ten feet tall, and its branches rise first and then bend back over to almost touch the ground, holding those broad leaves on the ends of long knuckled fingers. The fruit turns from green to purple as it ripens and what we don't pick falls to the dirt and splits open among the begonias. Within hours ants will carry off the sweet pulp.
My grandfather's name is Earl Leroy Packard. He's wearing a battered straw hat to protect his bald pate from the California sun and his gold wire rimmed glasses are perched snugly on the bridge of his thin beak of a nose. He's left behind in the house his shirt-pocket hearing aid with its long twist of flesh-colored wire. If he were to look up and see me he would give a little smile and make a wry joke about not having his ears. He looks every bit the transplanted Yankee that he is, even though he left East Charlemont, Massachussetts for the West Coast with his family when he was 17, in 1901. He's been dead since 1981.
The flower garden he tends over and over in my memory was bulldozed into a city park in the early 1970s. The memory comes from the late 1950s. I can place it precisely because beyond his kneeling form I see the almost new two-tone light blue 1956 Ford in the driveway. I'm eight years old, sitting in the fork of the little apricot tree in the middle of the patch of lawn, watching while he putters and fusses among the flowers and dwarf fruit trees. He grafted a few plum branches to the apricot, and the hybrid fruit those branches bore still has me convinced that the true seat of all pleasure is in the mouth. He began gardening in the late 1930s when he lived in Corvalis, Oregon, and brought many plants with him when he moved to Palo Alto, newly retired from a career as a paleontologist.
He had yellow, winter-blooming jasmine, red flowering quince and lemons. He was compulsive about bulbs, buying the new hybrid tulips and daffodils and anenomes and naturalizing them. He was always tucking something new in with those slightly impatient hands of his, potting his starts and tending his collection of cactus, sedums and succulents. He had fibrous begonia, iceland poppies, petunias and columbine and was fascinated by carnations and pinks. Spring would bring out the primroses, salvia, snapdragon and sweetpeas. In the summer he'd plant zinnias, nasturtium, bachelor button, dianthus, shasta daisy, hollyhock and cosmos. And in the fall he had asters and oleander to pick. There was always a bit of a vegetable garden behind the garage by the boysenberries. He knew what to bring inside to force blooms in the winter. No one ever left his house without flowers.
It is a strange land, there by the San Francisco Bay, where anything you put in the ground grows year-round, as long as you water it. The red geraniums in front of my grandparents' porch were bushes four feet tall, big enough for a kid to hide under.
My grandfather was a frail boy, plagued with ailments and infections. The biggest reason for the family's move to Puget Sound from Massachusetts, he used to tell me, was to protect his health, but I suspect that work for my greatgrandfather, a carriage painter, was drying up in East Charlemont, Massachusetts, and Washington state in 1901 was the promised land for thousands of easterners.
My grandfather also told the story of how his small-town doctor, called to his bedside by his mother Jenny, discovered the boy choking to death with swollen adenoids. The doctor, so the story goes, being a man of direct action and great resourcefulness, scraped the offending glands out of my grandfather's throat with his fingernail. That simple operation, if it or some version of it really happened, may have saved my grandfather's life. What is certain is that it did nothing to shorten it; he went on to live out more than 98 years, not quite besting his headstrong mother who died only after she reached 100.
He went to college at the University of Oregon and made a career as a paleontologist, a fossil digger. When he was 95 he told me that he had really wanted to to be a biologist or a botanist, to work with things that lived and grew rather that with the stony remnants of creatures who had given up their ghosts millions of years ago. A difficult series of encounters with unavailable courses and professors with bad reputations settled his profession for him. So he became a professor himself, a real good teacher who made a number of solid, if modest contributions, to the the field of invertebrate paleontology. Among his many interests were ammonites, those spiral shelled sea creatures, ancestors of the nautilus. I would find them emerging half-chipped away from the limestone like abstract geometric sculptures next to the sketches on his worktable. His study was in a little converted garage at the back corner of his lot.
I loved that study, its daybed and the bookshelves of National Geographics from the 1930s and '40s with their black and white photos. The big window over the table where my grandfather cleaned and measured and studied his ammonites opened to one of the flower beds and a dwarf peach tree, and because it faced west flooded the room with light in the afternoons. There was a swing glider with dark green vinyl upholstery on the tiny porch, and an exuberant honeysuckle vine which had climbed the porch posts. When the flowers were in bloom you could smell their fragrance even inside the study, where it mixed in an oddly pleasant way with the slight odor of mildew coming, I think, from the shelves of books and magazines.
On hot days I'd sit on the glider with its squeaking springs in the cool shelter of the porch, reading and sucking the beads of nectar from a handful of honeysuckle blossoms, and if there were ripe figs, eating those, too. A few years later, in 1962 or '63, across the threshold of puberty and in the company of a girlfriend who knew quite a bit more than I did, I would add other, more complicated pleasures to my experiences in my grandfather's garden. And I would also begin to bring back to the garden as I grew into my teens a new and troubled understanding of the bigger, messier world and my uncertain place in it. The assassination of a president, police dogs set against crowds, friends who were growing their hair long, helicopters, body bags and body counts, surfboards, acid, wrecked GTOs, burning ghettos, florescent body paint and the draft.
My grandfather made his garden like he made his life. He set limits, put up fences and did his very best inside those. Modest is the word that best describes how he and my grandmother, LeFay, lived, but that misses, somehow, describing the deep pleasure I think he took in living that way. When the city of Palo Alto decided that his neighborhood needed a park, and that his block would do just fine, thank you, he and my grandmother moved, more or less without complaint, one street away into a condominium. There was no garden there. He did his best, crowding the balcony and the windows with pots, but I realize now, in a way that I never did when he was alive, just how much he missed his garden.
When the city tore down all the houses on his old block, they left a number of trees, some pines and big redwoods. They left the old magnolias with their dark green leathery leaves that grew along the sidewalks. And somehow, by design I suppose, but perhaps by accident, they left the huge wisteria vine that snaked up the side of the front of that little house, up the column of the porch and all along the eaves.
When I visit the park now it is usually filled with parents and kids lounging on the grass, running, throwing balls, flying drones. I always stand at the wisteria and walk through the space where the house had been, through the living room, through the dining room, and out the back door, into the garden. One of these days, the wisteria, too, will be gone. But it won't stop my grandfather from putting his hearing aid on the dining room table, his straw hat on his head and going out to kneel in the flower bed under the fig tree to plant.