Three quarters of my family can make anything grow, anywhere. And then there’s me.
My father isn’t just a hobby gardener, he’s actually a famous one, in a local kind of way. When I brought home the plant my freshman year roommate’s mother had given us, flat against its bone-dry pot, my mother nursed it back to life. It’s now a four-foot wide monstrosity. My sister has a shelf for exotic succulents and orchids; plants creep from every sill in her house. My mother mailed me a cactus once, UPS overnight. It survived the journey, but not the following six months.
At no time in my life was my failure to be a nurturing human more evident than at our twice-yearly visits to my maternal grandparents’ house.
“Show me your new plants, Mom,” my mother would cry delightedly, and off they’d go, my family and my grandmother. They’d start with the garden window, pushed out of the house over the sink where my grandmother could see her African violets and, well, whatever those other plants were, while she meticulously washed each dish before putting it in the dishwasher. Then the back patio, with its arrangement of freestanding pots and benches. Then the yard, a perfectly trimmed rectangle of lawn surrounded by shrubs in an exact layer of red bark which was meant to be where the dog pooped. The dog cared about as much as I did for the bark and settled for making the lawn visually appealing but factually unusable.
I learned early on that I had nothing to contribute to these conversations. That I stood about as much chance of telling an escallonia from a camelia as one footballer from another- and at least jerseys had numbers.
And it wasn’t just the plants themselves that were under scrutiny. Each step that it took to make the plant thrive was held up and judged. Eggshells to keep slugs away; soap hung along the back fence to keep deer from creeping from the park beyond into the yard. Different fertilizers, nitrogen levels. Science as a proxy for kissing the boo-boo, praising a child and hanging its art on the refrigerator. Nurturing living things.
I would watch them through the sliding glass doors, sleeves tucked over my hands to avoid leaving prints on Grandma’s windows. Granddad would turn the game off as soon as everyone left, find his place in the magazine or Zane Grey novel at his elbow. We’d let the silence stretch out in the space between us and the excited voices.
Finally he’d put down the book and I’d turn away from the window.
“How’s your art coming, kiddo?” he’d ask, and I’d tell him, a painting or a sculpture or some fiber project.
He’d get up from the chair, dog at his heels. First the dog was Bill, then Bill Too, then Bill III, each one smaller and yappier than the last, but always at his heels.
The smallest spare bedroom was his studio, lit by a smallish window and a series of lamps. The easel was in the middle of the room, a small television in the corner so he could paint along with Bob Ross or Gary Jenkins. He had a full set of oil paints and the room always smelled vaguely of turpentine, but he didn’t care for how long oils too to dry and worked mainly in acrylics.
On the far wall was a bookcase. Later, there were two. And each shelf was filled with paintings, tabs between them marking months and years. He’d pull out ones he was particularly proud of, or ones with a story attached, and we’d talk about brushstrokes, time, color. About how sunsets weren’t bad, but getting the sky right so the day looked hot was harder. About the way you have to concentrate to see the shape of a stone when you know what it felt like in your hand, and the problem of capturing the smell of mesquite. About the way paintings are always windows, there’s always something more you can see if you could only angle your head a little more, turn the frame.
He painted broad, open landscapes, my grandfather, in this tiny room with its tiny sliding window. Painted the deserts of the West, painted skies stretching to low, broken horizons. And while the rest of the family walked outside the window, we painted windows full of imaginary plants.