Our twin hydrangeas are flourishing now that the weather is kind. Recently, the gardener moved one of them from where it spread across the back fence, to a shady spot under our bedroom window. Tucked into a protected corner, the plant has grown a foot or more since its arrival. Now the two hydrangeas can flutter their leaves at each other when a breeze drifts by.
Seeing flowers in my back yard takes me to childhood gardens my parents, especially my mother, cultivated. The house on Armacost in West Lost Angeles had the gardens I remember most clearly.
Dahlias with their perfect shape and brilliant crimsons, yellows, and corals grew in profusion along the fence that separated our property from the family on the north. Our driveway, and a fence belonging to our neighbors the MacDonalds, marked the boundary on the south side. Snapdragons, roses, irises, gladiolas, and pansies crowded the flowerbeds in all of the gardens we had as I grew up.
My parents had green thumbs and didn’t limit their talents to the ornamental, cutting garden. During World War II we had a “Victory Garden” and raised rabbits. While flowers decorated the front, in the backyard––behind the playhouse, the rabbit hutch, the quince and loquat trees, and the incinerator––our dinner table favorites dominated: lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, green onions, radishes, peas, and green beans. Both of my parents tended the rabbits we raised, for food and for sale. My brother and I were allowed to fill their water dishes, but feeding was left to Mom and Dad. Over feeding could harm the rabbits.
I remember when one of the hutch doors was left ajar and a large male we called Jackie––or something like that––escaped to the vegetable garden where he proceeded to eat himself into a stupor. Dad captured Jackie chomping his way through a row of lettuce and returned him to his cage making sure the door was firmly latched. Mother wrung her hands over what we would do for vegetables until the next crop. Dad handed her a five-dollar bill, enough money to fill our refrigerator with fruits and vegetables for weeks, and told her that would make the produce man at our grocery happy. We’d buy what we couldn’t grow.
Though my parents never discussed the subject within my hearing, I know we did not, could not, eat the full bounty of our garden. What we couldn’t use they shared with neighbors. The MacDonald family raised chickens––one rooster and no less than a dozen hens. They liked our rabbits and fruit from the trees. So we never lacked for eggs at breakfast, or a plump fried chicken for dinner. The generosity of our two families made rationing and shortages during those years more bearable.
Aunts and uncles who lived in homes too small for gardens joined in these trades as well. My grandmother made strawberry jam from our berries while the rest of the family pooled their sugar rations to sweeten the jam. On weekends, our family dinners teemed with boisterous kids and their parents. Along with the cakes and pies and home made breads they carried in, came the stories of their growing up years. Those times together filled our stomachs and our spirits. We were never hungry.
Now, as I stand in my own small garden, admiring the hydrangeas, I smile with thanks for all my parents showed my brother and me as they worked with the soil: the beauty of flowers, the bounty of home grown food, and the reward that comes from sharing our blessings.