Over the last couple of years I got it into my head that I was going to re-create my Great Aunt Annie’s garden, just as I remember it from the 1970s and the 1980s. The small circle of flowers that faced Bamford Avenue gave only a hint of the majestic garden that sat behind her house. There, at the top of a gentle slope that rose to meet a line of trees leading to a dirt path, was a plot of land filled, at least in my memory, with geraniums. These weren’t the only flowers, of course, in that large, rectangular space, but they are the ones I remember best, especially as I tend to the red and white ones on our deck and in the small plot behind our building. The full-bodied, dry, and earthy scent of my geraniums instantly transports me back to Annie’s garden.
As a little boy, walking through those carefully tended flowers was like diving into an ocean of greens and reds. I walked carefully along the paths she’d made, the stalks towering over me. The only other childhood experience I can compare it to was the time I nearly drowned. Once, after a swimming lesson, and out of sight of my swimming instructor, I dove into the deep end of the Watertown High School swimming pool. Actually, dove is too elegant a word. I sort of tumbled into it, wondering what mysteries would be waiting for me. I was also a great fan of Aquaman. With my head under water, I opened my eyes, delighted to see a field of green and blue bubbles. For a moment, the water looked so still and otherworldly that I forgot to be scared. Once it occurred to me that I’d probably made a mistake—I was and remain a terrible swimmer—instinct took hold and I found myself again on the surface. Suddenly worried about being scolded, I pulled myself to the edge of the pool and back to the deck. I was alone. It was the late 1970s. Lawsuits and liability were not big concerns. Also, I was a quiet kid, with no friends from my Catholic grammar school in the class, so no one—including the teacher—noticed that I’d been missing from the locker room. I went in to change and no one said a word.
Navigating my way through the garden felt like falling into the deep end of the pool. It was a blur of colors and muffled sounds. Above my head, I could just about make out the shape of each flower. I found myself at the center of an intricate web of scents, each one brighter than the next. In this memory, the garden itself and the narrow path between each row are filled with sunlight.
Along the other edge of her property, to the right of her house, was another line of trees, this one filled with rhubarb and gooseberry bushes. She made jam from the sour rhubarb stalks and encouraged my sister and me to enjoy the fresh green and white berries, which fell in clusters from branches covered in small, sharp thorns. I now have a gooseberry bush on our back deck that is three years old and, for the last two summers, it’s yielded more and more berries. When I find the self-control not to pick them in June, they mellow into a deep, wine red by July and early August. As children, we never waited; we ate them still green and tart. I planted another gooseberry bush this summer. My rhubarb needs more space. I’ve written a note to remind myself to transplant this fall.
By the close of the 1990s, as she neared her 90th birthday, Annie was no longer able to live on her own. Moving to a nursing home and leaving behind her precious flowers must have been painful, but, in her final years, she kept her garden and her memories of it close on a series of vibrant canvases. Her brother Eddie was also a painter; in the narrow stairway that led to the second floor of her house was one of his paintings, a nearly abstract image of a table set for dinner. To me, it always looked like a blue ghost holding court over the table, its face shrouded but somehow friendly. Once on the clock radio in her room I heard “Me and My Shadow” playing on Waterbury station WWCO and even now when I recall that painting I hear the words of the song. Me and my shadow. Strolling down the avenue. Me and my shadow. Not a soul to tell our troubles to.
My Great Aunt Annie Grigoraitis’s painting of a rose from 2001, when she was 91 years old.
My favorite of her paintings is the portrait of a rose. This is how I remember her garden, and I am thankful she took the time to paint from memory what I saw for myself, that ocean of white and green and yellow and red and pink and orange. The funny thing is that I don’t remember any roses in her garden. On her patio, maybe, alongside the pink fuchsia that sat shaded under the other trees that divided her house from the Carey’s two-family next door. When I look at this painting, I am seeing the garden again, but I smell germaniums and not roses. I adore roses, and just transplanted one that I’ve been tending on our deck, but geraniums have an earthiness and a toughness that I admire. Last winter, I took mine indoors, and though they struggled, they’ve flowered again in the last few weeks. They needed time to recover from five months of Chicago radiator heat.
I’m now reading Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden, his beloved 1871 account of his experiences as a New England gardener. In the introduction to the 2002 edition, Allan Gurganus explains that “[a]s with ‘live’ theater, the very impermanence of gardening makes its so fiercely and instructively present-tense. Gardens die when gardeners do. Cultivation, like living, cannot be relegated to a hired staff, alas. Happily, certain books reverse this trend” (xx). I don’t often visit the street where I grew up, my aunt’s house across Bamford Avenue from ours, because that circle of flowers in her front yard has been gone for years. I don’t want to know what happened to that other, ocean-like plot behind her house. But I don’t need it to be there. I have these digital images of her paintings which my sister recently emailed to me. And, like an aspiring painter studying the masters, I’ve tried to sketch my own version of her garden, one filled with geraniums. I’ve also added a few of my own flourishes, my beloved sunflowers and yarrow and lantana. A Chicago garden can only hold so many New England flowers.