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  • Writer's pictureJill

Victory Gardens: Grandpa and Me

Jill in the Garden with her Grandparents!

Recently, my friend forwarded me this article about Victory Gardens from the Huntington Library (my favorite place!) and it really resonated with me because of the time that I spent in my grandpa’s garden, and because of the time that we are in, and the gardening that we are doing together.

Victory Gardens remind of my grandfather’s backyard in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Many of my childhood summers were spent happily puttering around the garden, tagging along behind him, as he watered, weeded, and planted. I remember cucumber rows for days, dozens of tomato plants, dill, corn, peppers, beans, strawberries and watermelon. And I remember eating lunches consisting of fresh sun warmed tomato slices and homemade bread, and dill pickles canned from the garden with every supper. Such delightful memories of spending time in the garden with a grandpa that I loved. Yet, even though I was little, there was something about gardening that did not feel like a "hobby," but rather like a necessity for my grandparents. And I came to find out why.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression in South Dakota, and the garden for them at that time was an essential component of their daily survival. It was a true Victory Garden. They relied on the food that the garden produced for their everyday meals, and further, they relied on the canning and preserving that my grandma did to tide them through the winter, when the snow came and it was no longer possible to get fresh fruit and vegetables from the land. And because money was very tight, my mom and her sister used to have to walk their neighborhood with a wheelbarrow full of freshly picked produce from grandpa’s Victory Garden, to see if any of the neighbors were willing to purchase a carrot or two, because grandpa had the most successful garden on the block. I remember my mom telling me that she was embarrassed to have to sell door to door. To her, I think it felt like begging. But the few extra pennies that the produce brought in helped to buy goods that the garden couldn’t produce, like thread, and gas, and treats like sugar.

My grandparents were first generation immigrants to the United States. They both made the long arduous ocean journey from Eastern Europe in steerage to build their future here. The day they became citizens was a very proud day. So when they participated in the Victory Garden effort, it was also a patriotic duty in which they were happy to engage. But more than that, I think that being in the garden, dining at the little card table in the backyard, was a respite from the bleakness, the sorrow of war, and the fear of poverty that might be around the corner. And when I began to visit many years later, while the necessity to garden had faded, the fear lingered. Gardening provided a sense of security for my grandparents, the knowledge that they could remain self sufficient, even in the most difficult circumstances.

There is always hope in the garden, and I think that my grandparents appreciated that sentiment as we do today. Spending time in my garden these days feels healing, as if I am doing something that can bring joy, or food to our table. And in a way, it is a community effort, because the more that Robert and I self-quarantine, the less likely it is that we are part of the spread of this insidious disease. So hunkering down to enjoy the garden is good for me and you too. As the article notes, “You are thinking about the future when you are planting a seed.” And that rings especially true today. Each day when I rise, I think about what progress the little green things have made, and what hopes I have for the future of my little plot of land.

Oh, what gifts they gave to me. A love of gardening. A love of them. The knowledge that hope lies in the garden, and the calm that can be found amongst growing things. In times like these, that’s a victory indeed.


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