On this American holiday when thoughts turn to food and family, I find myself thinking about my roots, especially the ancestors who shared my deep appreciation and respect for the botanical world.
My father’s kin were mostly cotton farmers, working the delta soils of the southern Mississippi River states. I imagine most of them saw the plant world as a means to an end, a way to feed their families, a key to survival.
No one typifies this tough, determined type of ancestor better than my 3rd great-grandmother Sarah. Sarah spent most of her adult life in a small town in Alabama. Widowed at the age of 24, she never remarried — highly unusual in those days. Instead, she managed the family farm herself, and presided over a town filled with kin who loved her. She brought in her last cotton crop at age 98. When she reached her 100th birthday, the town threw a party in her honor. To celebrate, she plowed a row or two behind a bull. Having proved, I imagine, that she was still a force to be reckoned with, she died later that year. I hope I inherited half of her grit.
My father, Sarah Ann’s 2nd great-grandson, was a dreamer, not a farmer. Perhaps because he grew up watching his kin scratch out hard lives in the fields, he turned his bright, clever mind to more intellectual pursuits, entering college by age 16. Charming, witty, and keenly intelligent, my father regularly teased me about my obsession with the plant world, which was well-established by my early 20s. At that time, he told me he had a black thumb, but I remembered when the gardening bug had bitten him hard.
I was ten or eleven, and my family lived in a small town in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. We had just moved to a newly built house at the very edge of a shiny suburb, a house of which both my parents were deeply proud. My father decided the yard needed more landscaping than the flowers my mother added to the bed around the front entry.
First, he planted a weeping willow tree just at the edge of the hilltop on which our house perched. It was the perfect location, where long trailing branches could dangle artfully, dancing in wayward breezes. He struggled to dig out a decent hole for it in the hard-packed red clay that passed for soil, but he managed it. The tree was still thriving when we moved away three years later.
Even more impressive than the willow tree addition was his determination to add what he called “a proper rose garden.” I can only guess that this was a fanciful, romantic notion from the many books he read. His mother and grandmothers never grew roses. No one without vast quantities of free time and a willingness to use chemicals grows tea roses in the humid climate of my region. But he did it.
First, he carefully marked out two semicircular beds facing each other. Then he dug out the clay to a depth of about three feet. I remember playing in the trenches before he filled them with rich topsoil and compost. He planted six hybrid tea roses in each semicircle, caring for them more tenderly than he did his own children. They were fussed over daily that first year. When they produced beautiful, fragrant blossoms of red, pink, yellow, and ivory, he proudly cut some to put in a vase on his desk at his office.
Then his fancy turned to something else; the roses were neglected, nearly dead by the time we moved away. My father never demonstrated any interest in gardening or the natural world again. It was as if he needed to prove to himself that he could do it, but it was always an intellectual pursuit. There was no love for plants in him.
My mother’s kin mostly worked in professions such as teaching and business pursuits. However, many of the women had a love of gardening, especially flower gardens — just like my mother. No one better typified this than my great-grandmother, Etta. Like Sarah, Etta was widowed at a relatively young age (37), and she did not remarry. Instead, her older children and other family members helped support her as she raised her youngest babes to adulthood in a boarding house she ran to earn income. When she died at age 79, her family wrote a loving obituary that ran in the local paper. From that, I learned that Etta was a gifted storyteller, a knack my mother also had, and one shared by her children. But most wonderful to me was this excerpt: “She … enjoyed gardening in her yard as long as her health permitted. Later she was known for the beautiful house plants she grew.”
I had an “aha!” moment when I read this. Perhaps I am blessed with Etta’s plant-loving DNA. Like me, perhaps she couldn’t imagine a life without plants to nurture. Now I have an explanation for my lifelong passion — it’s genetic! Whether that’s true or not, I like to think that Etta smiles down on me from time to time as I wander my five acres, stroking fuzzy magnolia buds and telling the bald cypresses how magnificent their fluted trunks are becoming.
You may have guessed by now that I’ve been recently working on my genealogical roots. My parents didn’t leave behind many clues about their kin, but kind and knowledgeable distant and close kin have helped me quite a bit. I really hit the genealogical jackpot when I decided to have my DNA tested. Over a thousand cousins, many distant, some close, now prove my roots are deep — reaching back to the forests and fields of Colonial times — and wide — stretching up and down eastern North America, across the deep south, and up the Mississippi River.
Most wonderful to me are the closer cousins who share my interests. From cousins Carol and Tom, who are also writers, to cousin Ruth, a master gardener, and Vicki, who gardens for the hummingbirds. All my newly discovered kin are kind and generous souls, who have happily shared with me what they know about our common ancestors. Thanks so much, cousins.
So today, more than ever, I am grateful for roots. They hold me in place, stretching deeply through time and space, nurturing me with the gifts of good earth, blessing me with a love for stories, and an abiding passion for all the green world.