The question for someone who writes memoirs is, of course, “Who am I?” My answer at the moment seems to have evolved into, “I’m my grandparents.”
The wind in a willow began the whole thing: nothing soothes like a willow, in or out of a breeze, but in a breeze, it’s magic. And then too, we had a boggy stretch in the yard, maybe an underground stream, that seemed to need a water-soaking sort of plant. We planted a willow.
The next spring, or the one after, it seemed a most reasonable thing to create a flower plot along that section, beginning with circling the willow and running twenty-five feet or so beyond. My son did the heavy work, plowing up the heavy Missouri soil with the rotor tiller, adding mulch and compost, tilling again. My job is planting. I planted iris and peonies. Not just any iris and peonies, mind you, but Kansas iris and Kansas peonies.
The flowers of grandparent memories. This is how that all came about.
My cousin Howard, who looks just like Grandpa Sunderland, white beard and all, dug up some peonies at his house and gave them to me. I’d planted them in a back garden but they didn’t get enough sun to be really happy and I knew I needed to move them. It was Howard who first told me who I look like. We were out to dinner after I’d first moved to Kansas City and I said, “Howard, you’re one of the oldest cousins and we know you look like Grandpa Sunderland; who do I look like?” And he reared back in his chair, raised eyebrows and all (Howard is a very low-key person so that’s about all that happened to telegraph surprise), and he said, “Well, Grandma Sunderland, of course!” I laughed out loud. “So Grandpa and Grandma Sunderland are having dinner together,” I said.
That was the peonies part of the garden that developed around the willow. Kansas farms always had peonies. We had peonies, Grandma Sunderland had peonies, but she also grew yellow iris.
The iris part comes from years and years of smelling purple iris whenever I saw them, hoping to smell the telltale Kansas smell of grape soda. It never happened until one spring when I was up visiting a farm neighbor, Zita, and her iris bloomed all around the garage, both yellow and purple. I smelled the purple and they smelled like Grandpa Joe’s.
Grandpa Joe Ellis was my mother’s father. I remember him tending his iris and roses. I have roses, too. Grandpa had a huge backyard in Barnes, Kansas, stretching all the way back to the ditch before the railroad tracks. He also had cherry trees and peach trees and apple. And a garden. But the grape pop iris? They smelled like home. As a kid, I love that grape pop!
Zita said her iris needed to be separated anyway, so after blooming she dug up the roots and put them in plastic grocery bags for me. Bags and bags. She separated the yellow from the purple and the hybrids in yet another bag. All told I had some eight plastic bags of iris rhizomes. Stephen finished the garden tilling and I planted. Kansas iris at one end, hybrids at the other, transplanted peonies in the middle. They were all outrageously gorgeous and prolific and early. No peonies and iris for Memorial Day this year.
I cut peonies and iris, arranged them in vases around the house. More bloomed. I took some to church. And every time I walk into the backyard, I remember grandparents.
I didn’t ask enough questions of my grandparents when they were alive and I wish I had. Did you? How do you retrieve your grandparent memories?