February 4, 2009

Childhood Gardens

The best, most distinct, most numerous memories of childhood often involve gardens, trees, waterscapes and other natural world phenomena. From infancy, children seem to possess a very close connection with nature and inexhaustible enchantment with her offspring in all their permutations. A surefire method of quieting a crying baby is to hold it before a window, where it will quickly become enthralled and speechless watching the light, the branches of any visible trees, even the nighttime sky, stars and shadows. Take a child to a lakeside, riverside, ocean beach or creek, and only with difficulty will she or he be persuaded to stop exploring, splashing, collecting stones and shells, minnows and crabs, and come away again. Rare is the child who isn't regularly trying to escape from buildings to the much preferred environs of the outdoors.

Two gardens make up the setting for nearly all the childhood memories remaining to me. Both happened to be located in the tiny village of Lexington, on the western shore of Lake Huron, where my family spent every summer, from school out to fall roundup. One measured probably half an acre in size and surrounded the large Victorian house of a great aunt, where the family resided each summer. The other was a village lot some 50 feet wide by 150 feet deep, around the cottage of a grandmother, and on a bluff above the lake shore.

The aunt's gardens, for there were many in that half-acre, had been professionally planted and were maintained by a gardener, Mr. Hupp, who resided in a tiny loft apartment in the old barn at the back of the property. Mr. Hupp mysteriously disappeared, without so much as a note or a fare thee well, at some point in the growing up years, and thereafter the gardens were tended by the aunts, grandmothers, cousins and other females of the clan. The grandmother's yard was sporadically mowed and its shrubs trimmed up whenever a village lad happened along looking for some simoleons, or occasionally by my father on his weekend visits from Detroit City. Both completely captivated me, all waking hours not consigned to mealtimes, chores or sheltering from summer thunderstorms were spent in their presence.

Here's what held me spellbound, and never satiated in my pleasures and fantasy life in those gardens. The aunt had six mature cherry trees, two sweet black cherries, two tart red for pie-making, two Queen Anne whites. Countless sunny hours, every July, were dawdled away in these trees, climbing to perch on branches where the best cherry eating was within reach. There were many fruitful apple and pear trees as well, an avenue of horse chestnuts that yielded carpets of wondrous shiny brown nuts, a sweeping stands of towering pines, and a magnificent copper beech whose silky grey bark invited caresses. Rows upon rows of a cutting garden introduced me to the gladness of color and scent with phlox, lillies, iris, stock, delphinium. A large ringed bed offered the ecstasy of some dozen pastel and wine-red peonies, a decorative circular fence surrounded a functioning firehouse-red, hand-crank water pump and was smothered in climbing roses. All across the screened front porch, a purple wisteria drooped heavy blooms. In the center of one of the side yards a 20-foot circumference field-stone planter shaped like an Easter basket was filled annually with a plethora of petunias and marigolds. And along the western boundary, a large field left to go wild sported tall native grasses and wildflowers wherein a child could lie on the downy breast of the earth and wile away whole afternoons in sun-warmed daydreams.

The grandmother's garden, though miniscule and manicured in comparison, also captured deep affection. An old, small, much gnarled apple tree with a wide-spread divided trunk provided the easiest tree climbing and most comfortable, gently angled branches for repose. This garden acquainted me with the inimitable glories of the lilac's perfume and delicate beauty in a tall hedge along the side porch, where chickadees nested and hummingbirds came to drink. The bluff down to the beach, all wild and rarely cut back, was a mythical, romantic tangle of self-sown hollyhocks, sumac and dune grass. At its foot, aged, weathered and stretching its lemony boughs to dapple the sand with shade, a matronly willow tree stood sentinel. And of course, the grandmother's property included the unbeatable, infinite fascination of the big lake, peerless location for picnics, swims, beachcombing, sand-castle building.

The time spent in these two very different Michigan gardens left an indelible imprint of true, bone-deep happiness. The companionship of the trees and flowers, the rabbits, squirrels, field mice, cardinals, jays, junkos, sparrows, outdistanced by far that of human beings in quality and quantity, in the spreading of imagination's wings, in the solace of solitary rambling, in the balm given to a child's senses.

Perhaps childhood memories hold such prominent, polished sway partly because the person to whom they happen has a mind like an unplowed acre, open, impressionable and without timeworn pathways and interpretations. When such memories are of outdoor settings and explorations, perhaps what sears them into the mind is the fact that they return the child to the embrace of it's fundamental origin, to the nature from whence all life so exuberantly springs. Perhaps in a garden, children feel the gentle tug of the earth, the sunbeams, the tides that pull toward yes and yes and yes, yes grow, yes live, yes flourish.

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