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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I have spent much time in this past year remembering my grandma’s geraniums. As we endure too much forced isolation for safety’s sake, I cast my mind back to the late 1950s and early sixties, when I was a teenager. I was in my prime: a lifeguard and swimming instructor, a fine student. Grandma’s geraniums, too, were in their prime. Each summer they grew to overflowing from large green flower boxes on her porch, their blooms a lush riot of red and pink and white. Passersby could not help but pause to stare and remark on the show.

But my first impression of them was deceiving. It was the fall of Grade 9 and a group of my friends were headed down the street near our high school. We stopped to chat with a good-looking young man in glasses, a cap and work clothes, who was helping his father in the front yard of a well-kept brick house. We watched as they pulled dried-up geranium stems from the green boxes lining the porch, shook the dirt from their roots and prepared them for winter storage in the cellar. What a shock it must have been to those plants, I thought, to be unceremoniously wrenched from their comfort zone and plunged into a season of darkness.

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We talked for a moment or two and then went on our way. I soon discovered the young man in glasses, who had seemed so mature, was also in Grade 9. That year, we became friends; eventually, romance ensued. He walked me home from the winter dance. A few months later, we went together to the spring prom.

Throughout high school, we often visited the house with the green planters, for it was the home of my beau’s grandmother. My own grandparents lived elsewhere or had passed away, and I came to love her as if she were my own relative. A widow by then, Grandma Mary had her quirks. At a restaurant, she would order a glass of hot water. In went some ketchup, a few shakes of salt and pepper, and Grandma would enjoy a cup of “tomato soup” before her meal. At her granddaughter’s graduation from nursing school in London, Ont., she went AWOL in the sweltering heat. After a brief search, she was discovered comfortably seated on the lawn under a tree, fanning herself with her program.

For decades, she kept a daily diary; recording seasons of planting and harvesting, visitors from out of town, friends and relatives who had met their maker. I was honoured to make it into her diary, too: One day in July notes her grandson and his girlfriend took her to the beach and bought her an ice cream sundae to celebrate her birthday.

Always, Grandma’s porch was adorned with the lovely, hearty geraniums she had saved from the year before. Each spring, she carried them up from the basement, replanted the roots in nourishing soil, watered them regularly and the flowers flourished once again.

Today it seems most of us abandon our annuals to the compost after one season. When spring arrives, we are happy to pay for already-blooming flowers that have been nurtured by professional growers for our immediate gratification.

Although Grandma’s technique was surely partially born of frugality, it was also a tribute to the powers of regeneration she had witnessed over her years as a farmer’s wife. From those brittle twigs came great beauty. She had complete confidence it would always be thus.

Eventually, the house became too much work for Grandma and she moved to an apartment above the town’s post office. We continued to visit her when our homework was done and spent many hours engaged in raucous games of cards.

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The last time we visited, her time was near. As we sat and listened to her laboured breathing, I recalled, through a mist of tears, those beautiful geraniums Grandma had nurtured year after year.

Now I am the one who writes in diaries. The handsome young man and I have been married for 55 years. We’ve raised two children, who uprooted themselves from this small town and settled in the big city. Our son has a lovely young woman in his life and calls his own back garden his “happy place.” Our daughter still wears one of her great-grandmother’s rings, a gold band with three red rubies. This year, she and her husband will have been married for 30 years.

Their children are the fifth generation in this story. On the cusp of beginning their independent lives, they and their peers have found themselves wrenched into an unwelcoming and previously unimagined world of fear and isolation. What a shock to the system it must be! My heart goes out to them.

But as I think again of Grandma’s gorgeous, persistent geraniums, I am hopeful – no, confident – that once we emerge from this period of darkness, a season of blossoming is ahead.

Nancy McGillivray lives in Port Elgin, Ont.

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