Something about gardens and grandmas
An exploration of family, flowers and growth ft. poet and professor Amy Cannon
Grandma’s whole life went from two continents to two iPads.
One iPad is, if anything, obedient. Two is a balancing act between connected and addicted. Grandma doesn’t waste anything, though. Nothing gets thrown away at Jane’s house. Not a plastic bag from the grocery store, a second of time with her children (though maybe they don’t feel it), not a speck of food. Every grain of rice left on your plate is another day in purgatory.
An iPad is a time machine. It can bring three generations together in one. A screen can suck your entire life away.
What I’m trying to say is, in this constant tumble into old age that trudges on relentlessly at every moment such that if you’re not careful suddenly you’re 20 and you’re alone and all you’ve ever known is fear, or suddenly you’re 80 and all you’ve ever known is everything — in this constant kind of falling that we call life, maybe an iPad is an escape route. Then, my grandma has two, or my grandma has none.
I say with anxiety what Lorde says in her new album with grace, or (at least) melody.
Couldn't wait to turn fifteen
Then you blink and it's been ten years
Growing up a little at a time then all at once
Solar power is right. And I have this thing against metaphors — I think because I have this thing against seeming like I’m trying too hard, maybe because I have this problem where I constantly at all times restlessly, even obnoxiously, work too hard and not in a good way but in a this-girl-doesn’t-know-how-to-sit-with-silence way. But metaphors about gardens seem natural here.
This is nothing new. If you want to read someone who really knows something about writing or metaphors or life, read Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens” or read Annika Izora’s musings on the lessons we can learn from gardens.
If you want to know what I know (not much), there’s this.
There’s a book my mom used to read us when we were kids. It was called The Ugly Vegetables and it was about being Asian and feeling ugly and always being other. Ah, but it wasn’t. It was about gardening and family and the ways we grow. It was about mothers teaching daughters, it was about hands in the dirt, it was about roots that break through ground and hold on tight. It was about saying we’re here and we’re Asian and we’re beautiful.
It was a children’s story but it was poetry and it was a life lesson and it was revolutionary to see an Asian mother inside one of my picture books.
It taught me I exist.
Now’s the part of this newsletter thing where I shut up and I let real people who know the world say cool things about the cool things they do and the cool things they think. Let’s do an introduction. Hi — reader, friend, person-who-is-doing-a-great-job-simply-by-existing-today, meet Amy. Amy is a poet, a professor, a gardener and a mother herself.
Amy once said:
Oh, how I agree. And, here she is, in a newsletter, in your inbox. Thanks for sharing this space with the both of us, by the way. Here goes.
How has being a teacher informed how you approach being a mother?
I have to laugh, because my 3-year-old has just arrived at the “why?” phase—he questions anything and everything there is to question, and some things it didn’t even occur to me you could question—but he doesn’t know that all day every day I explain things for a living! My whole job is explaining things to people and helping them understand! So, it’s a funny experience of being well prepared for a part of parenthood that a lot of people dread or find a bit tedious. I try to take his questions seriously and use them as an opportunity for learning. Does he always absorb everything? Who knows. But I hope as a parent I can honor my child’s curiosity and growing mind, as I try to do for my students as well.
Do you want your child to love poetry? How do you grow a love for reading in young people in this day and age?
What a great question! I think I have a clearer sense of how I came to love poetry as a kid than how it may or may not happen for my child. I had a dad who told me stories or read to me every night, which had a huge impact on me. He read to my siblings as well; I don’t know if it shaped them as much as it did me, or if it was some combination of what we’re attuned to by nature and what our parents offer us through nurture. I think as parents we offer things all the time, model things all day, but you never really know what will stick with your child. There’s a bit of a mystery there.
What I loved about poetry from a young age was that it was fun! And funny! I read silly poems for kids—A.A. Milne and Hilaire Belloc and Edward Lear come to mind. I first encountered poetry as play, a playful approach to language. Unfortunately, I think most people in the U.S. first encounter it academically, as something to analyze in a fairly dry and spiritless way. So I would say showing how fun poetry can be, and also making it something to laugh over and be silly about together, is a good start.
We read a lot of kids books in our house: as a poet, the ones that phone in the language really get on my nerves. A lot of books for little kids are garbage, with no beauty or meaning or interest or care. But there are also wonderful, wonderful children’s books. Some of which have a lot to teach about image, sound, rhyme, and meter! Sandra Boynton is a true master of the craft: “The moon is high / the sea is deep. / They rock and rock / and rock to sleep.”
Tell me about what gardening has taught you or what you want it to teach your kids. Where did you find the love to garden?
I love this question! Gardening, parenting, and teaching are all of a piece for me. There’s actually a parenting book that suggests some parents are architects—carefully planning out who their child will be and working to accomplish that plan—and some parents are gardeners—still tending to their children’s needs, but stepping back to observe: What kind of plant are you? Do you need more water? Do you wilt in direct light? I love that way of thinking about parenthood: our job is to nurture, sometimes to train and direct, but mostly to closely observe and respond to what we see our children growing toward and into as people. In my syllabi, I explicitly describe my classroom as a “greenhouse”—I want it to be a sheltered space where new skills can grow, where students can try things out and take risks. But the great thing about a greenhouse is that it’s transparent: you can still see the wider world you’re preparing for; those concerns are still present. There’s just a bit of a buffer, until the young plants are strong enough to withstand the elements. Parenting and teaching can both be like that.
Gardening offers me so much. Especially when all our work was remote and online, it was so vital for me to get outside, breathe the air, work with my hands, get dirty. The tangible growth you get to see is nice too. Both teaching and parenting play the long game: you hope you’re helping these people become more fully who they are across a lifetime. You’re a support player for a part of it. So the much shorter timeline from planting a seed to harvesting a tomato can be a nice change of pace! My child has his own “snack garden,” where all the plants are miniature and edible. It’s been really fun to invite him into my love of gardening, and to see how much more open he is to new flavors when it’s something he’s grown himself!
Finally, are there any questions you wish you could ask your mom?
My mom is alive and well and relatively close by. I love watching her relationship with my child and her grandchild deepen over time. I don’t take that for granted: she lost her mom when she was in college to cancer. I think when I was a kid, that seemed like something sad, but also something that had happened to a grownup who could handle it. It wasn’t until I was college-aged myself that I realized how very young that is to lose a parent, and what a hard time it would be to experience that loss. My relationship with my mom has continued to grow and change across both our lives, and I imagine it would be so hard to have that cut off before you’re fully an adult yourself.
I guess I would like to ask her what it was like to mother without a mother, and also what it’s like to get to be a grandmother the way her own mom didn’t. I always felt connected to my mom’s mom, even though we never met. I was born on her birthday—and that always felt like a special gift, to my mom and to me. Maybe I’ll ask her about all of this the next time we visit.
You can follow Amy Cannon on Twitter, where she can be found tweeting about vegetables, parenting and writing.
Question to ask your mom:
Thanks for reading! If you have any ideas or suggestions for future interview subjects, let me know! And if you have musings or thoughts on motherhood, gardening, or anything else, my email inbox is always open :)
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