According to my belated mother, Granny assigned her to cooking family dinners at age eleven. “Everything we ate was from our garden, except flour and sugar,” Mom would say.
Her four younger brothers were almost grown men when they drove Grandpa’s buggy over the mountain into Pikeville, the closest city in Kentucky where they purchased staples. There, the McCoy boys first encountered rice.
Back home, while Granny traded with customers in her mercantile, her sons used every pot in the new homeplace with buckets of water to contain the swelling grain and finish what they started. The hogs consumed a good portion of their predicament, saving my uncles from their mother’s wrath over wasted food.
For centuries in Appalachia, if you couldn’t eat it, you didn’t need it. Great-granny Elizabeth’s calla lilies prevailed before the old homeplace only because the perennial red flowers asked nothing of anyone but admiration.
Years later in 1954, after my parents moved our household from the McCoy Bottom to Detroit, imagine our surprise when Mom found pink hollyhocks blooming in the backyard’s alley. She offered my sisters and me toothpicks to make ballerinas of the blossoms and buds.
The luxurious landscapes of our next rental house seemed like Paradise. Rocks painted white circled a large peach tree with tulips of all colors wide open beneath.
I know this because my father considered the sight so delightful he took home movies, a family treasure. Mom sits on the mowed grass in a dress weeding while my sisters and I play hide-n-seek amongst the floribunda. Perhaps this idyllic place inspired our mother to later try her hand with raising roses.
Yet, food came first when we moved into our new, little house Dad mortgaged with aid of the G.I. Bill. Mom grew her favorite stringed beans and tomatoes in the backyard while Dad sowed grass seed and later watered with a hose.
Mom added a maple tree to shade two bedrooms facing east. A fair-skinned woman, I don’t know how she endured the scorching summer days hanging clothes in a subdivision without one leafing tree.
A divorcee at age 52, my mother returned to Kentucky and built her dream home between the new homeplace and where her Granny Elizabeth’s calla lilies once flourished. Mom planted every southern vegetable imaginable including green apple trees similar to those I climbed with my sisters and cousins when we were youngsters.
Next, Mom ordered tulip bulbs, roses, boxwood. A weeping cherry tree for the front yard. Pink hollyhocks for the back door in plain view from her bean-stringing chair.
After Granny passed, Mom inherited the framed photograph of her younger and departed sister Sarah Jane. Three years old, Sarah poses with a fan before Great-granny’s calla lilies.
Dear Reader, whenever I said to Mom, “I’ve been working in my garden,” I meant flowers while she thought beans and corn.
“Why, I didn’t know you grew a garden,” she’d reply.
The root to Mom’s utilitarian meaning of the word ran deep and wide.
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