by Mary Ellen Gambutti
The old Overpeck Bridge once spanned the creek of the same name, before the wetlands were altered permanently by landfill and dredging. In the spring of 1955, Nana read a classified ad by a man who collected raw peat in his small boat and sold it from a roadside stand at the foot of the bridge. My grandmother aimed to improve the sandy river-bottom soil in her new garden. She brought me along on the adventure. The vendor loaded as many burlap bags of peat as could fit into Nana’s 1953 Caribbean-blue Nash Rambler convertible. I was five, and helped by staying out of the way, absorbing the sights of the one-lane bridge over the lapping creek and the pungent, earthy smell of the peat and meadow. So, I was unwittingly introduced to the importance of organic matter in gardening. In her newly enriched soil, Nana sowed grass seed, which yielded the cool green turf where I would play.
There had been no chance to garden in New York City, where she had lived for about 25 years with Granddaddy, my mom and uncle after moving from their Pennsylvania country home. Nana’s slight 5’2” frame belied her strength and stamina. She brushed her fine, sandy-brown hair, quickly swirling and pinning it into a plain French twist, while standing in front of the large mirror of her mahogany dresser. Always a lady, her plain, soft style was perfect to my eyes. I may have once seen her wearing wool slacks to shovel snow, but never shorts or trousers in the garden. She pushed the rotary mower wearing one of her crisply ironed, hand-sewn summer dresses, the same attire to plant and prune.
Nana dug foundation and flower beds around the quarter-acre property. With me at her side, she planted yew and hemlock hedges, azalea, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Soon, there appeared gaillardia and other perennials; annuals like zinnia, cosmos. Her love affair with hybrid tea and climbing roses flourished. My dad used his new basic carpentry skills to build her a 10’ x 20’ cedar trellis, which stretched along the slate path beside the garage. Red rambler roses covered it every June.
As I shadowed Nana, I became a “dirt under the nails” gardener. While I played among the nursery rows at the farm and garden center, Nana shopped for roses named for Disney characters: Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, and Snow White. “Would you take care of them?” she asked, and I nodded enthusiastically. With our new plants on the rear seat and floor of the Nash, the sweet fragrance of orange, red and white roses, and pots of spicy red, orange and yellow wiry stemmed lantana enveloping us, we returned home to Asbury Street to work in the garden.
Together we planted purple and white petunias, pansies with their cheerful faces, and a mix of evening-fragrant four o’clocks from hard, black seeds. We collected peppery portulaca seeds to save over winter in white envelopes. We carefully dug tulip bulbs in the fall and hung them from the cellar rafter in mesh onion bags. She dug and hung geraniums until spring arrived, urging new growth, and we planted them in the fresh earth.
Nana infused the love of gardening in me, and many years later I would study horticulture and botany, and would operate a small gardening business, renovating, designing and caring for fine gardens. When my husband and I moved to a Pennsylvania mini-farm in the 1990s, my dream of growing perennials and specialty cut flowers for market materialized.
Well into her 90s, Nana continued to garden in patio pots in California, where my family moved when my father retired. Back in her home state after twenty-five years, in the slanting autumn sunlight of my own bountiful Pennsylvania gardens, I wheeled Nana in between tall flowerbeds. She softly complimented me, breathing a relaxed, “Very nice.” She was as happy to be among the flowers as I was thrilled to have her blessing. Nana passed away the following spring at 99. Her legacy is the love of green plants, flower gardens—life, itself. I could have never dreamed of a greater treasure.
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"Garden Shadow" was first published in Wildflower Muse.
Mary Ellen's work is published or forthcoming in Gravel Magazine, Wildflower Muse, Remembered Arts Journal, Vignette Review, Modern Creative Life, Thousand and One Stories, Halcyon Days, NatureWriting, PostCard Shorts, Memoir Magazine, Haibun Today, CarpeArte, Borrowed Solace, Winter Street Writers, Amethyst Review, StoryLand, mac(ro)mic, SoftCartel, Drabble, FewerThan500, BellaMused and Contemporary Haibun Online. Her book is Stroke Story, My Journey There and Back. She and her husband reside in Sarasota, FL. Ibisandhibiscusmelwrites.blogspot.com