Cultivated in Grandma’s Garden

The story goes that I came out of day care and climbed in Grandma’s car and said, “Ms. So-and-so says I’m tiny and I’m not tiny, am I, Grandma?” And she, of course, had to explain that I was quite tiny, but that wasn’t a bad thing. I could do whatever I wanted, be whoever I wanted. Being tiny didn’t hold me back, but it was also something to be proud of. It made me unique.

That was one of her favorite stories to tell about little me. I don’t know if I remember the incident itself, but I’ve heard it so many times, I feel like I can remember it. I can envision her white Chrysler with the blue interior and the bench seat I’d slide across to sit right next to her. I remember the little purple sticker I had put on her steering wheel to remind her to put on her seat belt because she never did. After three months with that sticker, she remembered without prompting. I was so proud. Even years later as a middle, then high school student, when I saw her put on her seat belt, I’d give myself a mental pat on the back.

The story followed me well into my twenties. Even when the dementia began to set in, she told that story. Sometimes I wondered if she didn’t remember having told it, but most the time I knew she just felt like telling it again. She would say to my then-girlfriend “Meegan, have I told you about Ashley in Kindergarten?” And Meg would gleefully prompt her to tell it again. And my mother would shout, “Her name is Megan, Mum, not Meegan.” Grandma would pat Mom’s hand and nod. “Now, Meegan, as you know…” Ultimately, Megan and I decided it was a Canadian pronunciation. Neither of us really believed that, but it sure was fun trying to convince my Canadian mother.

When I got my license, the first road trip my parents let me take was to my grandparents’ house. It was the spring break of my senior year and it was decided that my brother and I would be visiting Gram to help with her yard. She loved that yard. In her younger years, clearing the walkways and scrubbing the stone benches, pruning the plants and raking the leaves were arduous but pleasant tasks. As she got older, the work became too much. She slowly eliminated the upkeep of certain areas, allowing them to go wild. As long as she had her wooden barrels of herbs and her favorite bench to sit on and stare at the garden, she was happy. I don’t remember that spring break, really. We resented being sent away when all our friends were allowed to stay and lounge in town, but as soon as we left the county, we were happy for the distance. My brother and I shopped in all the geriatric thrift stores in town, drove through the mountain roads too fast with the windows down, and, of course, helped Gram clean her favorite spots in the yard.

I still remember the cool, familiar smell of their house. Fresh cotton, musty books, White Linen by Estée Lauder, reams upon reams of fabric, cigarette smoke on a cold jacket, maple syrup. When her dementia became too much to handle, when his emphysema became cancer, my mother and her brothers decided to move them to a small house near my uncle. I drove up to help pack the house. Within minutes, I realized my uncles planned to gut the place, memories and keepsakes be damned. She had already forgotten them, so what did it matter? I gathered all the journals of hers I could find, her favorite books of poetry, the boxes of fabric I’d always admired. I tried to find the stacks of letters from when we were pen pals in my late teen years, but they were gone with the other worthless trinkets she had collected. Within an hour, my uncles gave me the task of grandma-sitting. I was too small to help carry anything anyway.

The house was sold. I’m sure the new owners changed the backyard. The walkways probably shifted. Maybe the flowerbeds became overgrown. But the tall pines continued to grow, their needles littering the places where Gram and I walked. She used to stop at the barrel of mint to pinch off a sprig for me to chew. Maybe some other five-year-old would delight in crushing the fragrant leaves and staring up at the blue mountain sky.

Not knowing was a comfort. If I didn’t know, then maybe it was all exactly how I had left it, exactly how she had left it. Perfectly preserved in the mist of memory. But now I know it’s gone. The house was in Magalia. About ten miles north of Paradise. Now the only comfort is that Gram died before her garden. She’ll never know the trees didn’t even make it.


  1. I’ve had that experience with my Gran’s house. All though it’s not physically gone like Paradise is, it might as well be. It’s not the same. She’s not there to give us saltine crackers and home made butter at the kitchen table or make us go pick fresh berries from the garden only to spend hours out there and only bring back a small bowl full. But you know what? Those are some of the best memories I have of growing up. She passed away back in the 90’s and I still miss her. Where did those 20+ years go? But I’ll always remember her just as you will remember yours but . Nothing and no one can destroy that or take it from you. It’s part of you like your DNA, where you go it goes. I’m sorry for the loss of your Gram and for the house, but you’ll always remember.

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  2. You’ve written about your memories with such tenderness, Ashley. It’s obvious that your grandmother lived in a very special place in your heart, and you in hers. Your beautiful memories will sustain you forever. They are the stuff that cannot be destroyed by flames.

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  3. What a beautiful story, Ash. Whenever I’m in Sacramento, I drive by my grandparents’ house and while it looks pretty much the same on the outside, I know it’s not the same on the inside. Regardless, I have great memories of Gran cooking in her tiny kitchen and Grandpa playing catch with my brother and me in the front yard. Those memories can never be taken from me.

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    • A beautiful and heart-rending story. I’m sensitized just now because of selling my father’s house (and mother’s, but she’s been gone for five years.) The sale was final six weeks ago, after I’d spent the summer traveling back and forth and retrieving what things of daily value I could find. People saved mounds of letters over the years before we had email! Now I have to face sorting through the piles of what I brought home and storing things away somewhere so I’ll have room for Christmas tree this year. I should be writing down memories as you have, but I can’t quite face that yet. My father, at 98, is in an extended care facility near me, and needs as much attention as I can muster.

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  4. This is amazing. Freaking amazing.

    I didn’t have a relationship with either set of grandparents (too many dysfunctional family reasons to sift through for that explanation), so I don’t know what I’m missing, but when I read stories like this, I feel a sense of loss, too, and I see what people who had relationships with their grandparents got that I didn’t, and I always wonder if maybe I would have had some things easier if I had. I don’t know, and I’ll never know, and that carries its own weight in my life. So thank you for sharing a bit of your Gram with us.

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  5. What a wonderful story & memory for you. I feel so sad for all the people who’ve lost everything. We had considered moving to Paradise a few years ago and I guess the Goddess guided us in a different direction.

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  6. Grandmothers are special people. It’s sad that not everyone has a memory so poignant, so beautifully retold of a life full of love…a love of endurance. I hope you still have some of those treasured items and perhaps someday, you’ll be a “grandmother” to another little girl or boy, who will also grow up to be magnificent at what they do…Hugs and love, Ash.

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  7. What wonderful memories you have. Grandmothers are a blessing. I still miss mine and I’m 75 years old! I can only hope my grandchildren have as fond of memories of me as you and I do of ours. I did have a nice cry after I read your story but thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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  8. Like Andi, I have very few familial memories that aren’t fraught, but it’s wonderful to hear stories of women who were Grand-Mothers, in the truest sense of the word. 🙂


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