Back when my grandmother lived in Oakland, she owned the most beautiful house on the block. She won no fewer than three awards honoring the aesthetics of her gorgeous abode. Sure, the two-story Victorian itself was kept and lovely, but the real draw was her garden. My grandma grew flowers like nobody’s business. Succulents. Cacti. Mounds of rosebushes and tulips – it was like the Garden of Eden, minus the presence of original sin. To this day, I’ve yet to see a location more beautifully pure.
Young me was especially partial to her sunflowers. They were so yellow that they warmed your face when I leaned in to smell them, and so tall that they seemed to crane their stem to look down on me. I could get lost in her flowers forever, and I spent many summers and autumn days there when my mom went back to school. One late summer in particular saw my lovely grandmother win her third neighborhood award, which came as no surprise to her or her neighbors. There was no overt jealousy as far as I could tell, but I do remember one nice old lady from down the street dropping by and begging my grandmother for answers, claiming that she just couldn’t get her tulips to bloom, even though we had just had a long bout of rain (can you believe it used to rain in California?) My grandmother gave her some very polite pointers that even I, at five or six years of age, could tell were surface level. Once she and I were alone again, I asked her to tell me the truth. “How do you get your flowers to grow so big, Grammere?”
She smiled in that knowing way that told me that I was going to hear a juicy, delicious secret. My heart swelled with excitement and anticipation. Finally, I was going to learn what all of her neighbors desired to know – how does my grandmother maintain the most beautiful personal garden in Oakland.
“Well, Kooka, I talk to them.”
“You talk to them?”
“It helps them grow.”
A lot of things went through my head. First, I thought about my grandpa and how much she probably missed him, since he had passed the summer before. I figured she had missed him so much that she grew a garden full of friends so that she always had someone to talk to. But I didn’t believe for a second that all she did was talk to them to make them grow. I had a few brilliant theories: firstly, it was possible that my grandma was using a special potion to help the flowers grow big (I imagined it like chemical X from the PowerPuff girls). My second theory was that my grandmother was a good witch who, instead of eating children, grew flowers. What a boring witch, I thought. She doesn’t even fly.
Out of options and dying from curiosity, I decided to give this flower-talking thing a shot.
One afternoon when my grandmother was gardening, I nervously approached the biggest, most lovely sunflower in the garden (the one who craned its neck the most to look down on me) and I very politely said, “hello.” The flower said nothing. How rude. “My name is Alexandria.” Still nothing.
“He knows your name, Kooka,” said my grandmother, not looking away from tending her daisies a few yards away. I’m sure she didn’t intend to terrify me, but she did. Why on God’s green earth or Grandmere’s green garden should this rude, anti-social flower know my name?
“He didn’t say nothing, Grammere.”
“It’s ‘say anything’, Kooka. And of course he did. Just have to listen. “ I sighed and closed my eyes so that I could listen better. A breeze was coming in. It kissed my cheeks and wiggled my eyelashes and made me feel warm and cold at the same time. I opened my eyes and saw and felt the warmth of the giant flower on my little face.
“He says hello,” said my grandmother quietly, still smiling at her perfect daisies.
I had had just about enough of this, so I decided to have a stakeout. One chilly autumn morning I woke up just after dawn to catch my grandma in the act. The second floor bedroom window as high enough that she couldn’t see me snooping, but low enough that I could make out a few words that she would say to the flowers. I had to know the truth. What was her secret? I pressed my nose against the glass window and I was able to hear a few choice words, specifically the word Frank, which was my grandfather’s name. I watched her for what felt like hours and I caught chunks of conversation like, “Frank, she’s getting so tall!” or “Frank, I miss you.”
That afternoon after lunch I joined her out in the garden again. It was one of those moments of impeccable, unmistakable, unreal beauty – in retrospect it couldn’t live up to my current memory of this day. This flowers sparkled with the fresh drops of water my grandmother had carefully doused them with, and the soil under my feet subtly rose and fell to the rhythm of the breeze. It felt like the earth and flowers were breathing, and I was standing right over its heart. I approached the giant sunflower again, and he craned his neck down to look at me.
In my mind, my grandma believed that Pop was hiding somewhere in the flowers, but I couldn’t see them. Maybe the flowers could tell me where he was.
“Hello,” I said politely, with more confidence than last time. I closed my eyes to allow myself to listen to the answer. That’s the beautiful part about being a child. Adults are always about talking and arguing and getting their points across. Kids learn that everything has something to say – even flowers – if we all just shut up and listen. So I listened. The breeze tickled my eyelashes and swished the braids that dangled over my shoulders.
“He says hello,” said my grandmother, raising her voice a big to be heard over the breeze and wind chimes.
As I craned my neck up to look at the flowers, and it craned its head down to look at me, I felt like I knew that flower before. Like that flower, somehow, loved me. Then I understood the secret of my grandmother’s garden. It wasn’t talking that brought the plants to life. It was love.
I walked nearer to the flower, and I was so close to it that I could feel its warmth on my face even on this breezy day. I’m so overcome with love for my familiar flower friend that I exclaim, “You are just so beautiful!” I closed my eyes again to listen. I’m sure that after 20 years of remembering and re-remembering this story, some things may get exaggerated or even straight up forgotten. But the one thing I know I felt was warmth. I felt like the kindest, brightest, most gentle sun was in the eye of the flower, blessing me with warmth.
When I opened my eyes, I noticed that my grandmother had turned her back on her daisies to watch me.
“What is it, Grammere?”
“Nothing, Kooka. I just think that he wants to say that he thinks you’re beautiful too.”
I remember my childhood being magical in a lot of ways, and I’m certain that most of the magic can be explained through science, exaggeration, or lapses in memory. But children choose to believe in magic, and for the sake of the story, I will opt to believe in magic, or that the garden was filled with magic that day. After a long day of gardening and flower talking, my grandmother and I cuddled up in the shade as the earth and flowers breathed beneath us. The wind blew though the chimes and kissed my cheeks and forehead as my grandmother and I laid in the soil to listen to my grandfather’s heartbeat. And I swear to you that in all the gardens in all of the world (and I’ve been to my share) none could compare to the quiet beauty of my grandmother’s garden that day.
These days, my Grandmere lives in Desoto, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. She has a lot of land. I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve seen pictures of her garden. It’s almost as beautiful as the one she had here. She never remarried. Just as well. You can’t compete with a guy that gives you hugs from flowers and kisses from the wind.