For 30 years I have served on the Altar Guild at my church. Tuesday night I went to an Altar Guild meeting at a local restaurant. Dreading going out into the cold and knowing that my spirited dog Reese was waiting for me to talk a long walk in the dark, frigid night, I lingered amongst this eclectic group of floral aficionados—all vastly more knowledgeable and talented than me. I couldn’t help thinking about the serendipity that brought me to this group.
The year was 1989 and I was planning our wedding. There was an older man in our church, Jack, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jack Benny, gestures and all. He was not only a minister but a florist. His book, Floral Art in the Church, is still in publication. He believed in the symbiosis between living plants and the altar. Somewhat of a curmudgeon, he was didactic in his views on altar arrangements and known to wield his cane to stress his point.
I was a little intimidated by him, but I loved his floral arrangements and the majesty they brought to the church service. So, one Sunday I approached him and asked if I could hire him to do the church flowers in our wedding. He hesitated, then took a step forward and tapped my foot with his cane.
“Do you like flowers?”
Nodding, I explained how I became interested in flowers when I was little and digging in pots of dirt in my grandfather’s greenhouse.
Jack hesitated, then poked my foot once more.
“I will do it for you, but I have a condition.”
His condition was that I join the altar guild. He needed some help on Saturdays when he did the arrangements. I would watch him and learn.
“Why me?” I asked.
“Because you said you love flowers. And look around here. Everyone on this committee has one foot in the grave. We need some youth. Who will tend to the flowers when we are gone?”
And that was the beginning of my apprenticeship. I remember, many months later, the first time that I did my own arrangement. After church I asked Jack what he thought.
“Hmmm,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “Well next time it’ll be better.”
My time with Jack was brief, because soon he began the descent into old age and senility, and he was no longer able to arrange flowers. He was not the only “gardener” I would lose in my life. My first was my grandfather.
My granddaddy was a kind but gruff man—not the warm, fun-loving grandfather my children had. I was the youngest—by almost a generation—of all the grandchildren and one of only two girls. My brothers have years of memories and experiences with Granddaddy, but most of my memories were fleeting visions: his old-fashioned adding machine with the buttons and brass lever; the white leather recliner he sat in on Sunday afternoons; his old red truck; his distinctive voice and idioms; the large glasses of iced tea that had sandy sugar beaches coating the bottom.
And I remember his greenhouse. He was not a man I could relate to easily, except there. One Sunday afternoon when we were visiting, I wandered into the greenhouse, and he followed me. From then on it was our thing. He lived on approximately 5 acres and managed gardens of potatoes, rhubarb, green beans, tomatoes, and strawberries. The weekend before he died (at age 86), he cut down Christmas trees for several people in the family on his 300+ acre farm. He kept bees, and as a little girl I thought he was an astronaut in his beekeeping suit. Legend has it his elephant ears won prizes for their size and luster. I recall asking what happened to the elephants and remember him chuckling. (He never answered me, and still I wonder.)
Inside the greenhouse, Granddaddy would place small plastic containers in front of me and let me scoop dirt from one to the other. He dangled worms in front of my eyes and explained, in simple terms, their place in the ecosystem—how soil rich with worms was healthy soil. He would let me plant something and each week I’d return to see its progress. How rewarding to see that bright green shoot poking through the soil! Long before discussions of climate change, Granddaddy was my environmental scientist.
To this day, I love to dig in dirt. I look forward to planning my annual flower garden, meager though it is. My mom and I always spent a Spring Saturday afternoon shopping for plants together. I think she loved caladiums because she remembered them lining the porch on her father’s house. Both she and my Aunt June inherited Granddaddy’s green thumb, and their homes were respites for struggling house plants and their porches and decks resplendent with flowers.
I remember, in college, my friend asking to leave her house plant at my parents’ house over the summer. It was leggy, its leaves blighted. Mom, looking from the plant to me, asked, “Did the girl ever water this poor thing?”
By August when my friend returned, the plant was luscious. Mom refused to give it back. “I just can’t in good conscience trust her with it,” she said.
Driving home from the meeting last night, I thought of Jack and my grandfather. I arrived home to an oversized peace lily begging for water, and I thought of my mom. My grandfather’s estate was sold, and the land developed in the late 70s, and Jack has been dead for years. But the altar remains and there are new gardens to tend. It may have been serendipity that brought Jack into my life and opened me to the world of flower arranging, that made me traipse into my grandfather’s greenhouse and linger there, but the seeds they sowed beget a deep and powerful root system in my life.
What gardens nurtured you? What gardens do you tend, if only in your heart? And, in Jack’s words, “Who will tend the flowers when we’re gone?”