Sunday, March 24, 2013

Making things grow

Guv and his tomatoes, in a warmer climate.
There is a picture somewhere, an old color slide, of me kneeling in the grass in front of Guv's rock garden in the back yard, pulling weeds. The mysterious and beautiful black-and-white photos end around 1961 or so, when my parents started shooting slides, which we loved but which were harder to look at. They required equipment and cooperation.

Many nights we'd clamor, "Let's watch slides!" and usually the answer was no, it's too late, it's too much trouble, but every now and then the answer was yes, and someone would haul the screen out of its rapidly disintegrating box and set up the shaky aluminum tripod legs in the space between the living room and the dining room, and someone else would retrieve the carousel projector from the bottom doors of the little Dutch cabinet (or so we called it, misunderstanding and mispronouncing the word "hutch"), and we'd all sit cross-legged on the carpeting and stare, rapt, at the pictures of our history as they flashed by, our history of weeks and months and maybe even a couple of years ago. We'd squeal and blush and look away whenever our own face appeared, gigantic on the screen, and then it would be replaced by someone else's face and we would intensely wish our own face back.

After 1966, we watched the slides less often, and those of us who were still small and silly and unthinking kept up a running commentary, chattering about when and where the picture was taken, and when a picture of John Patrick showed up we would say, knowledgeably, "That was when Bobby was still alive," and my parents would get up and walk out of the room. One of the older kids would kick us to make us shut up. But why? It was just a fact to us, another bit of our history that we needed to repeat and repeat in order to understand.

When the white light beamed empty, showing us the blank glittering screen, the disappointment was palpable. We wanted more! More big-screen color pictures of ourselves, proving that we were important and loved and photographed and having a happy childhood.

But the show was over, everything was dismantled, and life was no longer in Technicolor. I do not know where those slides are anymore; they were cannibalized, bit by bit, by older children as they left the nest, maybe wanting some reminder of their young years, and then by the rest of us more boldly because, why not? The carousels had already been robbed. Our history was already edited.

But I clearly remember the picture of myself pulling weeds. My head is down, I am leaning on one hand and reaching with the other. In the image, I am not prominent; it is the garden that gets most of the frame. Guv took it, Guv the gardener, Guv the Missouri boy, who built that rock garden and planned it carefully, planting it with sweet, modest flowers--pansies, snapdragons, petunias, and one yellow primrose in memory of Bobby. He encircled the whole thing with snow-on-the-mountain, which climbed over the rocky perimeter and made its way to the center. It was my job to keep it in check.

"You have to pull it out by the roots," Guv said, but I didn't; my hands weren't strong, and I didn't want to go to the trouble of doing it right: Moistening the soil, and using a tool. I just grabbed with my little hands and pulled, breaking off the ivy at ground level. It looked like I'd done my job, but of course I had not and so had to do it again, often.

Not really gardening; just playing in the mud.
I wanted to love gardening because Guv loved gardening, and I admired and adored him. He set up a grow-light in the basement (and sometimes he brought it upstairs and put it in the fireplace), and he started spring seedlings under its weird purplish glow, tending them carefully, watering them gently, coaxing them along.

He gave us plants, which we grew in clay pots in the front picture window: gloxinias, and begonias. I had to be reminded to water mine, and when I did I tried to mimic Guv's nurturing ways, talking quietly to my flower, pouring water gently on the leaves to give them a bath.

"Don't water the leaves," Guv said. "They'll rot."

And so in exasperation I decided that gardening was too hard. I would never understand it, and, never persistent when challenges came my way, I gave up. I buried myself in "The Gateway to Storyland" and wondered: If not gardening, then what?


Pondside said...

The story of watching slides - you had to have been in our house in the 60's. I'll have to ask after those packs of slides.

Pamela said...

My parents never had slides .. but my eldest brother did. Some other relatives did, too. I remember my brother setting it up one night and my kitten kept jumping up on the couch and jumping on the wall trying to play with the changing patterns. My husband's aunt (stayed single all her life) died several years ago and we still have her slides of all her trips. Don't know how we will ever get around to going through them to see if there are any we really want to keep. As for gardening. My dad was too. I have a photo of me doing very similar things. Now one of my daughter's has the gene.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Now I'm wondering...who has our slides? I was taken with your comment about looking away and then wishing your face would come back on screen. This kind of insight is one of the things that make your writing so special.

Pamela M. Miller said...

Slide shows were such a part of our family life, too! Thankfully, there was never a terrible break in our appreciation for them caused by the death of a sibling whose image would then cause sorrow. (I hope you will write a little more about the lost boy, John Patrick/Bobby, in time.)

Indigo Bunting said...

I love this photo of you. And I am not a gardener.

Sandy said...

We never had slides and I was born with a black thumb but I do love your stories.

For just a minute, I get to go back to when the grown ups had all the answers and my only job was dusting the furniture legs on Saturday mornings.

Thank you

Naperville Now said...

I hope one of your sibs will read your post and start digging for that slide. I've been spending weeks on my husband's family's pictures (5 books so far) and trying to reunite pix to cousins and siblings. So far, so good.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Slides can be scanned nowadays and be would be nice if your siblings shared with you.

We were poor so an old Brownie Camera was the best my parents could do.

Only rich people had slides:)

Flea said...

Stories, of course. :) One of my favorite family activities was the slide show. I enjoyed them until high school. I think they were all lost in Hurricane Katrina.

Meganne Fabrega said...

Your memories of slides really brought it back for me...the smell, the ker-chunk. Great image.

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

If not gardening...then writing, obviously.

Brenda said...

I always enjoy your writing. I too loved that comment about wishing intensely that your face would come true, lol! Your stories remind us of our own stories I think. My family didn't have slides, but I enjoyed reading the comments of your readers - this was obviously an experience shared by many!

Amy said...

Lovely photos. Makes me want to hunt out our slides

Karen said...

That was a wonderful read!
We have a whole whack of slides from cleaning out my mother's place. At first we couldn't find the cord for the carousel projector, but eventually realized it was stored in the bottom of it. We did have fun looking at one of the carousels, but should make a point of going through them all.