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Gardening, I’m discovering, is a pastime you can’t just try once and be done with it – you have to get your hands dirty again and again. I’ve tried my luck with a trowel several times, adding a few more pots and new plant varieties to my planters each year. I’ve combed the internet looking for ways to prevent aphids from attacking my silver leaf, and how to cure my yellowing Early Girl tomato plant. I’ve pestered my mother for tips and tricks she’s picked up tending her own garden. (She suggested I try growing mint, without a doubt one of those hard-to-kill plants.) I’ve checked out books at the library, making rudimentary studies into if anything – anything – can possibly thrive in Calgary’s Climate Zone 3. This hobby isn’t widely shared among my own social circle of young moms and working professionals. Still, I persist because not only does a well-loved garden look good on Instagram but also it can help make a home. I know this because of my grandparents.
My grandfather loved gardening. Ya Ya’s fondness for tending to his flowers and vegetables was second only to seeing his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren well fed. After his arrival in Canada before the Second World War, Ya Ya opened a small restaurant and café near the railway tracks of Medicine Hat, Alta. As such, my grandparents’ old dining table was peppered with relics from the family business, including 1950s-styled sugar dispensers and chrome napkin holders. When we visited, usually for Easter or Thanksgiving, each meal offered platters of fried rice, barbecued pork and Chinese spinach with bean curd. I’d fumble with my chopsticks as I ate, trying to impress my grandparents. Ya Ya would clap and praise me with exclamations of “Good girl!” while my grandmother, Yang Yang, who didn’t speak any English, would laugh and nod in approval.
Ya Ya took great pride in growing a bounty of snap peas, carrots and spinach plants, which he used in home cooking. My grandparents’ house was on a tree-lined street – a small, detached two-storey with an enclosed sundeck and modest yard space. The entire backyard was devoted to his plants; not a square foot of sod to be found. I would walk along the wooden planks Ya Ya had set down in between his rows of vegetables, looking up toward the bean stalks that towered over my seven-year-old body. I pretended to be lost in a forest as I hopped from plank to plank in search of adventure. The bright wildflowers lining the boarders in the front inspired fairy-tale-ish stories of secluded cottages and cheerful woodland creatures.
When Ya Ya grew ill, his garden remained, though its growth was unruly and wild and required biannual efforts of family members to keep it in check. When he died, my grandmother pulled up most of the remaining plants. Still only a child, I asked my cousin why Yang Yang had dug up Ya Ya’s plants? She told me Yang Yang was sad and the garden became a painful reminder of my grandfather’s absence.
Years passed, and soon Yang Yang, frail and bent-over with age, could no longer live in her Medicine Hat home by herself. My father moved her to Calgary to be closer to family, which meant taking her away from her home and from the last remnants of the garden. Shortly after the move, she telephoned my father, and through the receiver I could hear her tearfully shouting in Toisan Chinese asking why he had bothered moving her to this city when her life was elsewhere.
In time, the angry phone calls stopped. Yang Yang grew accustomed to the new house she now shared with my cousin, her young son and their dog Aries. She made friends with the geriatric canine with whom she could commiserate over the aches and pains of aging. We gathered for family meals around the dining table she’d moved from Medicine Hat, with the same napkin dispenser ready to serve. One evening, she gestured for me to follow her to the backyard. There, nestled in a small raised-bed planter beside the garage, was a row of maturing Chinese spinach Yang Yang had requested last spring. She pointed to a plant, and I tore off the leaves she wanted. She was gardening at 92.
I now have a house and family of my own. The back patio of our inner-city townhome is tiny, but it is bright and warm. Last summer my Early Girl tomato plant yellowed throughout the growing season, but it gave us a dozen grape-sized fruits by August’s end. I was overzealous in tackling the aphids, and killed off one or two annuals. The mint plant thrived, but became infested with leafhoppers. Overall, a mixed success. I often think back to Ya Ya’s garden, and wonder how it must have evolved over the decades before I got to enjoy scampering through it. And I think about how Yang Yang started over again, tending to new greenery in a new city, far from her first home in Canada, even further from her village in China. We all must start somewhere, and sometimes we must start over again. And sometimes, starting again simply involves allowing new roots to grow where they can.
Carolyn Wong-Ranasinghe lives in Calgary, Alta.