It was wartime. Death stalked the skies over Britain as my grandmother taught me the names of the flowers in her country garden, a litany of the seasons: bluebells, snowdrops, and aconites in the spring; roses and clematis in summer; dahlias and
chrysanthemums in autumn. These were among my first words, and they come back to me now with a resonance no other words can match.
My grandmother was not oblivious to the war. Her beloved son-in-law, my father, was a Royal Air Force pilot; my mother, her only daughter, had come home with me. Grandmother herself was a civil air-raid warden, dashing dangerously around the countryside in an old Austin and wearing a helmet that looked like an upside-down soup plate. She was active in the village chapter of the Women’s Institute, making jam and raising vegetables, and she offered respite to bomb-weary London friends. Every evening brought a hushed gathering at the radio for the BBC’s 6 o’clock news, its solemnity recognized even by a small girl.
My grandmother and the garden are the reason the war years held no terror for me. I remember those days as sunlit and filled with wonderful surprises: the first snow-dusted shoots of spring; the unfolding of a blood-red rose; the way gladiolus flowers opened from the bottom to the top of the stem; dahlias, whose packed petals looked like faces.
I would dig beside her when she planted bulbs in the fall and follow her in spring and summer as she cut flowers for the table or for the rooms of visitors. Often, on warm afternoons, we sat under the rose pergola while I repeated that exotic word, pergola, to make her laugh.
Today, in a dark time and another country, I go out into my garden.
It is no match for my grandmother’s. Mine is a small garden challenged by sandy soil, heat, and humidity. But I feel blessed to have it. Today’s new word is pandemic, a threat that will not affect the rhythms of the garden. Crocuses and early daffodils are up, soon to give way to later varieties, the delicate blue and white stars of puschkinia, to tulips, and then the flowers of early summer. There is promise in the buds on the lilacs, the red-tipped branches of the Japanese maple, shoots on the rose canes, fiddleheads amid the winter-matted ferns. Each plant has its season, predictable almost to the day.