The gift of gardening blooms year after year

Every spring, when the last patches of snow finally surrender to the sun and buds begin swelling with new life, I think about an unusual gift my two grandmothers passed along to their grandchildren. It was the gift of gardening - or, to put it less elegantly, the gift of dirt under our fingernails. In their separate ways, without realizing it, they imparted a love of flowers, quietly teaching us the wonders of seeds and bulbs, soil and water and light.

For my maternal grandmother, that gift began with an annual flat of pansies when my sister and I were in elementary school. With their bright colors and cheerful faces, the pansies radiated their own sunlight, offering a promise of summer days to come. Planting them became a special project.

As we troweled a hole for each plant, we delighted in the fat worms wriggling through the overturned soil. And as we tamped the black Midwestern soil around the roots, we probably sent up the kind of silent plea all gardeners can understand: Bloom, pansies, bloom. They did, of course. In the process, we learned responsibility, lugging the hose from the backyard to water the plants during dry spells, and pinching off fading flowers to stimulate new blossoms.

One year this same grandmother also gave us tulip bulbs, which we planted on a chilly autumn Saturday. As we waited through the long winter for them to bloom, we learned that dormancy has its rewards - a lesson applicable in many aspects of life.

Pansies and tulips in our garden weren't her only legacy. Flowers in my grandparents' own well-manicured yard are etched in memory: tuberous begonias, geraniums, petunias, peonies, lilacs, lily of the valley.

For my paternal grandmother, 70 miles away in southern Wisconsin, the gift to us involved sharing the bounty from her enormous garden, filled with flowers, vegetables, and amazing raspberries. Gardening was her joy and solace. Rising before dawn to weed and hoe before days grew hot, she brought zinnias, gladiolus, bachelor's buttons and more into glorious bloom. What a treat when she sent a bouquet home with us after a Sunday visit.

In a consumer society, where presents typically come from stores - boxed, wrapped, and beribboned - the unconventional gift of the love of nature carries no price tag.

Other grandparents have their own intangible gifts to pass along. Think of the grandfather who teaches his grandchildren to play chess or bat a ball. Or the grandmother who shows a granddaughter how to knit and takes her to symphony concerts. Still others convey a love of reading, cooking, or travel. And don't forget those who pass along the gift of sharing family history and lore - stories that might otherwise be lost.

In Kenneth Grahame's beloved classic, "The Wind in the Willows," Ratty tells Mole that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Those with a love of flowers and plants might want to revise that quote to extol the pleasure of "simply messing about in gardens."

These days it's a pleasure I know only vicariously. I can't pretend to be more than an armchair gardener. Green thumbs belong to others. But someday, when clocks are less demanding and weekends more relaxed, I expect to turn the garden in my head into the garden in our yard, combining the flowers both of my grandmothers grew.

For now, my husband plants a pot of pansies on the patio every spring and adds a few more tulip bulbs around the garden in the fall. And every Saturday morning throughout the winter and spring, I head for Trader Joe's to buy bunches of tulips to grace the house. As I wait in the checkout line, admiring the colorful blooms, I sometimes say a silent thank you for the long-ago legacies my grandmothers gave us - priceless and enduring.

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