Granny’s gardens

So my gran died.

And it doesn’t matter how much you know it’s coming, or how much you’re expecting it, or how many times you see her with oxygen tubes in her nose and the weight dropping off her and her struggling even to stand up to do dishes …

Nothing prepares you for it.

There’s a gran-shaped hole in my world and I didn’t see enough of her before she left.

I didn’t tell her enough times that I love her.

I didn’t take enough pictures with her.

I didn’t enough ANYTHING with her.

I don’t think it would ever have been enough, though. My gran was not someone you ever got tired of.

I spoke at her memorial. This is what I said. It’s not nearly enough.

When I was thinking about what to say here, a million thoughts of my grandmother speeding around my brain like kites with tails too short to catch hold of, I had a sudden image of a Disney princess wandering around a forest scattering seeds in her wake, flowers springing up in her footprints and all manner of winged creatures swooping around her. And I thought … AH, there she is! Rather shorter and rounder than your average Disney princess, perhaps, but every bit as joyful and beautiful as Snow White drawing water from a well.

My grandmother loved alive things. I can identify many of the Joburg birds by sight or song (hoopoe, weaver, cuckoo, loerie, starling, crow, indian mynah, laughing dove, kingfisher, bulbul, mousebird), thanks to the afternoons we sat looking out of the window at her bird log strapped high in a tree, watching baby barbets poke their heads out of the hole like whack-a-moles as their parents whizzed back and forth bringing them food.

I remember winter mornings breaking the ice off the birdbath with boiling water, pouring a steady stream onto the middle of the sheet without splashing to create a hole that we could stick our hands into. First prize went to the one who managed to lift it off without breaking it. I would carry it with pride, at age three not much taller than the disc of ice under my armpit.

I’ve watched her sit still and quiet on her porch, scattering bread crumbs or biscuits to coax the birds nearer, hop by hop, until sparrows and kiewiets stood centimetres from her shoes, pecking morsels from the ground around her, not fluttering away when she spoke or reached for her cup of tea.

My grandmother loved alive things. Her porches were gowned in wisteria and honeysuckle, and when you stepped outside in the morning the first air you breathed was jasmine and morning glory. Her flower beds were trimmed with alyssum, giving rise to lavender and lemon verbena, petunias and Namaqualand daisies blazing sunshine colors in the spring. Hydrangeas massed along the side of the house, arum lilies and agapanthus clustered around their feet. I collected easter eggs in the forest at the top of the garden and picked gooseberries from the bush and ate them where I stood, the yellow balls warm in my mouth.

She spent three years growing a hoya for me, using a cutting from her own vine. The single strand was less than a metre long when she gave it to me and I carried it home and put it on the porch table. When I returned from work the next day it was lying shredded on the lawn where my puppy had dragged it. I didn’t know how to tell her. I did, of course, but she didn’t say much about it at the time and it was only when we were sitting on her porch soon after her diagnosis that she told me the parent plant, hanging tangled on its trellis behind me, was fifty years old and I realised what I had lost.


That plant has lived in almost every garden she has tended. It has bloomed beside gladiolus and irises, marigolds and snapdragons. Sweet peas have wafted their scent over its velvet flowers and potted daffodils have clustered around its base. Every vein and cell and hair of it, and the soil it grows in, is imbued with her. And while it lives, she cannot die.

This is a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I think it would make her smile.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there. I did not die.



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