Friday, November 15, 2013

The Roots of a Gardener

"Dad had a stroke."  It's been a week since my sister said those words over the phone and my life and my world got turned upside down.  I flew to Buffalo the next morning and my family and I have spent the last 7 days in and out of the stroke unit at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, where he is receiving wonderful care.  After a very grim first couple of days, things are actually starting to look up a bit for my father, although it's going to be a very long and slow recovery.

While I'm staying with my mom I'm sleeping in the same room I had as a kid, which happens to have the exact same furniture as when I left for college 33 years ago.  The view out the bedroom window into the woods behind the house is exactly the same as it was all those years ago and every square inch of this house is saturated with memories from my childhood.  My father still has a garden out back, flowers now (well, at least in warmer weather) but when I was a kid it was a vegetable garden.  It was my job to keep it weeded--something I hated--but I have many happy memories of working alongside my father, digging and planting, and especially harvesting the vegetables, literally the fruits of my labor.  I enjoyed giving the vegetables to my mother, who was (and is) an excellent cook and transformed the eggplants, the green beans, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the bell peppers, and the zucchini into the dishes that are still my comfort foods.  My father has always taken such pride in his gardens, mowed the lawn himself right up until the age of 82 (although I doubt he'll be able to do that any longer), and has grown the most enormous and beautiful rhododendrons I've ever seen, putting up fencing around them every fall as my parents prepared to head to Florida for the winter so the deer wouldn't eat them.  The rhododendrons welcome my parents with their flowers every spring, just as they are returning.

My mom asked me a few days ago where botany came from: how on earth did I ever get interested in that field?  Because as a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist, and as a teenager I collected insects and went into entomology at Cornell.  So why plants?  The answer is my father.  Although I don't remember it, he tells me that I loved "working" in the garden with him even when I was 4 or 5 years old, back when we still lived in Syracuse, and one of my earliest memories is picking a daisy and "planting" it in a paper cup full of mud, and plopping it on the table when my mother had some women over for bridge.  My father always gardened and was in charge of the outdoor plants, but my mother always had houseplants indoors.  How could I not have ended up loving plants?  And when we moved from Syracuse to a nearly-rural suburb of Buffalo, I found myself surrounded by forests full of strange and mysterious wildflowers like trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits.  The latter were among my favorites, but I wanted to know the names of all of them.  My father helped me look them up in the encyclopedia and gave me a little patch of the garden, where I could plant anything I wanted, and I started bringing home the plants that I found, trying to grow them (although not always successfully).  Many other people along the way helped cultivate my interest in plants, but my father planted the seeds, and for that I will be forever indebted to him.


  1. Wonderful story, John. Thanks so much for sharing and I hope your father will quickly recover.

  2. Your dad sounds a LOT like mine!
    Hope he recovers quickly!

  3. I know from the pictures Martin sent how beautiful his flowers were. Betty Bryan Enjoyed your story