A garden is a long work.
Yes, you can turn soil, plant seeds, harvest in that same fall. In that sense, to grow a garden is a simple task, unskilled labour; weed a little, watch the water, wait on the season, and done.
Gardening, though, is more than this.
It is the communion of human and plant, a conversation. Scientifically, we could talk of microbe, mycelium, symbiosis, processes; poetically, we could speak with the living soul of a place. Gardening, our words are literally fruit and flower, placement of stone, allowances for those we identify either as weed or volunteer.
Gardening, we open a door to companionship with the living land.
I come from long lines of gardeners, who brought themselves to open that door, not as some high-minded esoteric communion, but to feed their own children.
My grandmother came to Canada in 1928, leaving behind the turmoil of martial-law era Poland, and bringing four young children, the youngest a baby. Her brother had emigrated to St. Louis, and so she’d heard that life across the ocean was possible and positive. Great Uncle Tony was a barber. As for Grandma, she was a farmwife. So, her family became part of the wave of Slavic farmers invited by the Canadian government to turn “free, unused” land into a northern breadbasket. And, as I’d glean from my mom’s telling, it was bread that finalized their decision to leave Poland.
Here’s the story, as I understand it:
Under the regime of Marshal Piłsudski, Poland was lurching toward totalitarianism. Soldiers were everywhere. Farms were being forcibly collectivized. My grandparents were landowners, but now, Grandpa was pressed into service in a fieldwork group charged with meeting government quotas and schedules.
While he was in the fields, Grandma ran the household, as ever. I picture her, strong, lively, hazel eyes bright in youth, curly dark hair held in an embroidered floral scarf. She would have had already the air of quiet steadiness that was her quintessence. She’d already buried her first-born daughter, taken by pneumonia at the age of two. She’d nursed her mother and father-in-law, lost in the 1918 flu epidemic, and helped her husband raise his orphaned younger sisters.
She had three other young ones at home. I imagine she was pregnant; or else my second eldest aunt was a tiny baby. Either way, Grandma was a busy woman.
That day, she was making bread. Can you see the wooden breadbowl, large and plain, smooth inside with use and the working of lard or butter into the grain? Can you see her capable, efficient hands, moving sure in the dance of kneading dough?
Suddenly, soldiers arrived. Her husband had fallen ill in the field, and now she must replace him. Imagine the young mother protesting, that she had work enough making this precious bread to feed her family.
The soldiers simply overturned the bowl, the round of hopeful dough spilled in a dumb mound in the dust of the yard.
The story didn’t come with any details beyond that one act. They turned her bread out on the ground, and forced her to go to the fields. The rest of what might have been said or done that day fell into the silence that has absorbed so many family histories of endurance and survival.
But that day, when their bread was thrown into the dust, they decided to leave. Those unfinished loaves raised up in them the determination to gamble on a journey across half a world.
Many years later, when I was in my late teens and Grandma her nineties, I took my turn staying with her in her magical little house in Beaverlodge. She and Grandpa had raised nine children, built a prosperous farm, lived long and healthy lives. She’d never learned to read or write, and her English was extremely limited. But Grandma was used to silence, carried whole worlds of stories unspoken. It was restful, staying with her. She accepted with quiet dignity the help she needed, and took a quiet interest in me as a person, conveyed largely without conversation. It was there in the food, which was always prodigious, as if I were fuelling up for a long day in the fields.
Should I protest that I was in fact, stuffed like a sausage, she would offer a glimpse of her life, in her simple statement: Eat. Too skinny. Me, young, I was two hundred pounds, not fat. It’s good.
I believed her. Up until her death at 101, she had a gorgeous incurved waist, and a liveliness that animated her sturdy limbs and broad hips with what I could easily see had been robust beauty in girlhood.
Mostly, we talked like that, in brief exchanges covering the basics of our daily activities – meals, baths, medicines, bedtimes. But one day, as we sat at the little formica table finishing our mid-afternoon tea and cookie break, she turned her gaze out through the window for a moment, to where the late winter sun lay low across the snow-covered yard and the small town bungalows.
Then she looked back at me, and, in halting English, told me a story. She spoke, with heartfelt eloquence, out of decades of silence and endurance, of how cold is Canada (Kanady, she said, declining the noun according to Polish grammar). How long are the winters.
When she was a girl, she told me, by April, it was Spring at home. She missed the Springtime, missed the gentle openness of the land of her birth. She recalled the bounty of cucumbers and strawberries, so easily flourishing there, there where she could swim in the creek at a time of year when there might still be ice in the water here. She missed the green and the flowers.
Here, she said, she was so shocked to arrive and find their farm was nothing but skinny poplars and hard, cold clay, full of rocks. It was five years, she said, before the land provided enough that she could feed her family properly.
For five years, she concluded, I cried. Every day I cried. For five years.
I took a Polish class at university, but too late to learn enough to reach back to her for more stories. So, I gleaned from my mother glimpses of family history that my Grandma passed down out of her enduring quiet, to her habitually quiet youngest daughter. And I bake bread.
My mother showed me how, the calm and powerful dance of hands that asks the grain to transform into bread. The prayer that goes into the bread, the way the rising bread reveals the Will of God, and can give direction to the prayerful maker. As the bread goes, so goes the matter about which the maker prays.
I knead by hand in my turn, and teach my daughter and nieces the way of it. Whatever their world looks like when they are women, they will know this connection.
Now, when I set bread, it is a way to tell back, without words, some of the story, and to honour my grandmother:
For five years, my grandmother, learning the way to convince this hard, cold, dark land to open for her, to offer up grain that would answer her call and transform into the staff of life, bringing health and wellbeing to her family.
This essay in its entirety was commissioned for a Canada 150 project sponsored by Edmonton Community Foundation, Eighteen Bridges Magazine and Edmonton Litfest, and first published in Eighteen Bridges, whose editor retitled it “The Truth is in the Dirt.”
The image above is from Pixabay.com, a wonderful source of Creative Commons images.