Grandma's Garden of Life

Author: Rachel Hunsell

Elaine's Garden

Surrounded by her family, boxes of seeds and bulbs, songs of Sunday morning worship and the sound of rain on her tin roof, my Grandma’s spirit left her earthly body on the morning of my brother’s birthday in 2017. The two are forever intertwined.

I’d been working at TAPS for less than two months, facilitating our backcountry expeditions and sharing the healing power of nature with my fellow survivors. Just a few weeks before she died, I was exploring and experiencing great challenges in the Grand Canyon, one of her favorite places in the world, focusing on every single bloom I saw to get me through. 

She was on my mind the entire expedition, knowing intimately well that her life on this earth was coming to an end. Even though spring was all around me, my heart felt like late fall. But stubborn as they came, she faced death head on in the grace of springtime, an acknowledgement that we’ve been given the gift of living. It was in those last weeks of her life she reminded me, yet again, the importance of this present-minded living - that our time is best spent learning, loving and living in full bloom, lessons taught from the garden. 

Gardening is woven into the fabric of my family’s story, and, for me, it all began with her, my rambunctious, witty and wildly authentic late grandma and namesake, Elaine. She embodied a full life. Her front porch was adorned with windchimes, a couple of jars of sweet tea, totes of bulbs, bags of last year’s seeds, and more gardening and seed catalogs than you can imagine. A handbuilt greenhouse, stacked with trays ready for new life, was out back, with garden tools, pots and wheelbarrows that seemed to hold it up like the beams of a home. It was there, in the garden, where life’s hardest and most beautiful lessons were learned tending to the needs of plants, flowers, pollinators - and most importantly, family. 

Elaine's Garden

Her flower and vegetable gardens were vast and unique, spanning well over an acre, on family land tucked into the woods of the rural Midwest. Some of my favorite memories of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood were spent there with her. Together in her garden we’d spend hours laughing, sweating and pulling weeds - even until the very end of her life, her hands in some dirt is what she loved most. 

It felt as if grandma knew everything there was to know about living and gardening - when to plant, how to plant, how much sun, how much water, what liked to companion with others and what didn’t, nearly every name of every flower I’d ever seen, and the ability to learn what she’d missed. My grandma passed a kind of wealth onto her family that looks more like present-mindedness, resilience and full bellies than it does shiny new things and easy fixes. 

Grandma knew what the garden of life looked like from the harsh winter hibernation to new growth in the spring, to flourishing summertime, to the fade of the fall. She deeply understood the circle of life, that all of us are born and die, like the plants and flowers in our gardens. But what she gifted those who would open their eyes and hearts to see is the space in between.

Grandma knew it's what we allow ourselves to experience in the day to day moments of life that matters most..the real cycle of life is the adventure, from seed sprouts to bright blooms to the return to soil.

Throughout the wintertime she’d reminisce on last year’s garden surprises, hopeful for their return in the spring but always aware another day, another year is never promised to us. In the early springtime, as the final days of frost dissipated, Grandma would point out the differences in sprouts reaching out of the earth, what had arrived early and what was missing. Sprouts felt just like new babies in the family and were tended to with great care and adoration. We’d pull away the unnecessary weeds, making room for what needed to grow. 

When she’d notice what hadn't survived the winter, we acknowledged it. Oftentimes, she’d say, we have an expectation that we’ll always see those blooms again, but as the days passed and spring sprang into summer, she’d remind us that our gardens aren’t the same from year to year. Change is inevitable, death is inevitable. Every single bloom should be breathed in and given gratitude, for in a short time it will be gone. Now, I know, these weren’t just flowers she was talking about. It was all of us, it was her. My great teachers and counselors in death, the garden and Grandma, were actually my greatest advisers of what it means to be fully alive! 

As the earth brings its yearly reminder that change is inevitable and necessary, with leaves turning from bright greens to oranges and reds, my heart and mind are flooded with this river of emotions and memories. The end of summer has always been bittersweet to me, as I adore the vibrancy of summertime blooms, lush forests and rainbows of bountiful harvests - moments I want to cling tightly to. But, I can feel the transition all around me, from life to death. The long days of sunshine and daily veggie harvests once seemed endless, but in the blink of an eye the wilting of leaves and blooms gave way to the fade of fall, and eventually the cold of winter. 

Elaine and RachelRachel and her grandma Elaine

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to draw nearer to those lessons learned from my grandma Elaine in her garden. She knew exactly what each season in the garden showed us, and she embraced it on every single stepping stone on the path in her garden of life. For Grandma, the garden was her way of teaching us the cycle of our lives: the excited acknowledgement of the new, the deep gratitude and embrace of our bright blooms and early losses, and the acceptance of the end to our grand adventure. 

She may not sit in that rocking chair on the porch cracking jokes and garden orders anymore, but her lessons and gifts throughout my life have given me the ability to see her in the early morning dew drops on dog walks, in the bright blooms of my garden and on the roadside, and in the dragonflies that greet me on my own grand adventures. She watered my life’s garden so well in her living, that in her death she’s made me see my life’s blooms even brighter and fuller than ever before.

Rachel Hunsell is the surviving sister of Lance Cpl. J. Kyle Price, U.S. Marine Corps and serves as TAPS Outdoors Manager.

Photos courtesy of Rachel Hunsell.