Thursday, September 23, 2010

Genealogy of a Gardener

1908 post card of Exchange Street in Galva IL

I work on family genealogy like crazy for a few days and then put it away for months. Several of my relatives have done quite extensive research which leaves me free to go on little side hunts. I often focus on the farm and family culture that made my family what it has been and is today.

The farm and family culture brings the “ah ha” moments where I realize my family did something because (1) it was their Mennonite religion, (2) it was what pioneers heading west in the early 1800’s had to endure, (3) it was how generations of my family from Switzerland, Lancaster, PA, Holmes Co., OH and then Howard Co., IN developed, and (4) it was how the great Midwest was found and changed.

Both this portion of the Illinois Grand Prairie & my area of Indiana were marshland and heavily wooded. Both presented huge challenges for pioneering farmers. Each meant clearing and stabilizing the land for family homes, crops and beginning communities.

I enjoy visiting old homesteads and visualizing the family and how they settled the area. Why was the well placed in a certain place? Is that the foundation of a summer kitchen? Is the mint, gooseberries and rhubarb a part of a pioneer woman’s garden? Is that sweet little Seven Sisters Rose bush original to the family that built the home? The stone step, hallowed out from thousands of feet crossing the threshold, gives me a sense of touching the history of another family.

Old gardens are always fascinating. Plants and seeds were passed down among generations of family and neighbors. It’s the woman of the house telling her daughter, “Oh honey, that’s Evelyn Troline’s mother’s iris. It’s just like my mother had at our house.” Or, “The seeds for those hollyhocks came from my cousin’s wife, Bonnie.” “I remember the year of the tornado, it’s the year Shelly Sundquist gave me that start of Gooseneck Loosestrife.” It’s not just a garden; it’s the fabric of a family and friends’ genealogy.

This kind of genealogy goes beyond who is related to whom and in what order (although I enjoy that, too). For a gardener, it may pull you to plant things that remind you of home. It may be a bouquet of flowers in just the same kind of vase your grandmother always had on her mantle. It’s a few blue Bachelor Buttons in a little container that reminds me of a favorite neighbor.

For me, memories come strong from the more simple old homes, ones where there were hard working farm families. It’s the land that carries memories of feast and famine, celebrations and heartbreak, love and turbulence, and the hand of the long forgotten gardener.

It’s in spite of the fact there are three stone markers for little babies lost, a pioneer woman planted, reaped and sustained her family at this home. It’s in spite of the Great Depression, the many wars, the loss of husbands and sons, wives and mothers kept a little patch of flowers right by the kitchen window.

Many of us don’t live in the same place where our family originated. But, we can still share the genealogy of the fabric of our family with the next generation by explaining why we planted that simple rose instead of a new hybrid – it’s like my great-grandmother had growing up her garden shed. These conversations give your children and grandchildren a sense of history and belonging. It’s the seeds of the past to germinate a future.

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