My much-beloved grandmother died when I was ten.
I was at camp when it happened, and I didn’t even know she was ill. The camp director brought me and my sister into an office space behind the camp store to tell us, and I remember her saying, “You can cry or scream or whatever you need to do.”
I don’t remember my response, her funeral, or anything else about it. I suppose I built a mighty fortress around my little girl heart for protection; Dambarr died the year after my mother. Two heartbreaking losses in a year’s time, early lessons in “life isn’t fair.”
That’s why the memories I hold of her are treasure. I write at a secretary that once sat in her living room, an antique thing with dulled brass accents and pulls I’ve been warned not to polish. “It will lose its value,” I’m told, and what I know that a furniture dealer discounts is that Dambarr’s secretary will never lose value because it was hers.
I remember only a few things about her, but they are good things, and lasting. She gave us after-bath alcohol rubs, wintergreen, and we’d lay face down on our towels on the bed, naked and squirmy and loved (and I suppose, disinfected). She made fairy sandwiches out of Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls or Callie biscuits and whatever meat we had the night before. She’d slather butter top and bottom and broil our tiny sandwiches in a 70s green toaster oven that sat on a rolling metal cart in her galley kitchen.
She’d let us jiggle the fat on her arms and she’d sketch bowls of fruit for us to copy. She’d sit on the floor and build houses made of cards, this stately, well-to-do woman, a competition bridge player who traveled the world. She sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Please, Mr. Judge Where’s My Daddy?” old, melancholy songs but nighttime rituals we couldn’t do without. We’d “blum-blum” before lying down to sleep, her feet on the floor with soft arms wrapped around our tiny bodies, us, standing at the foot of our beds, tiny arms cupped around her neck, swaying side to side and sing-songing those words until we settled. Blum…blum…blum…blum. It was our thing, flesh on flesh, heart to heart.
Her house, “the house at Woodlawn,” is over 100 years old and my brother owns it now. A fraternity house sits right in front of it, so he rents it to college students today; but when Dambarr owned it, it was a grand home, plaster walls and radiator heat, and wallpaper actually made of paper. Birds and botanical if my mind’s eye remembers well. A fancy crystal chandelier in her dining room. A loud but wonderful attic fan in the basement that sucked air with a big whoosh (calling it “attic” never made sense to me since it’s in the basement).
Dambarr was a master gardener, and her back yard was magical.
It was gated in manicured boxwoods, an even hedge with an always-invitation. Its center was grassy and square, perfect for a child and her imagination to run wild, free. Camellias, hydrangeas, and azaleas lined the edges and back. The right corner, pathed with a rocky edge, was reserved for annuals and perennials–roses in every shade, worth the prick of rude thorns; primrose and pansies, daffodils, snowbells, narcissus, and tulips. Snapdragons. Marigolds. Star-of-Bethlehem. Those are all the names I can remember right now but maybe there were more? A little herb garden and veggie spot in the back right of that–spearmint and peppermint and parsley, tomatoes–cherry and the big kind, the name of which escapes me. She had a scuppernong vine, but that always seemed weird to me.
We’d jump off her detached garage roof into the compost pile, clueless as to what was in it, or more likely, we didn’t care. We got to jump off a roof!
She taught us to make tiny dolls out of a flowering shrub; unopened buds for a head, and opened flowers as ball gowns. I can’t call it by name, but I recognize it when I see it…and I always want to steal a bud and a flower to make a little fairy doll.
Dambarr died too soon to teach me anything about gardening, but she seeded in me a deep love and appreciation for flowers.
And then I learned about FTD’s #ILookToHer campaign, an initiative celebrating women and how they inspire us. I knew before I shared about my experience in Philadelphia, however, I had to introduce you to my grandmother, the reason it made sense for me to go, the woman who has continued to inspire me over 40 years after her death.
I can’t wait to share images from the Philly Flower Show, and my Designer’s Studio segment with the incredibly talented Andrea Ancel, lead floral designer for FTD. It was a blast and an honor, and I’m very thankful to FTD for sponsoring my visit.