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  • Writer's pictureShainna M. Callaway

My Momma’s Green Thumb

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

My mother was an interesting character in life. She was the type that could live without shame and not have to learn from her mistakes. She was a proud person with lots of inner strength, and she loved to garden.

mother and daughter posing for a photo.
This photo was taken during Michael Gray's wedding at City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in 2009

I could fill an entire book with stories just about the eccentricities of that woman. It would be a tragic comedy for she lived in a way that was almost beyond belief. But one thing that was no joke, she definitely knew how to make things grow.

I can still see her now. Up with the rising sun, her silhouette casting a long shadow of one hand fisted on her hip whilst the other dangled a watering hose at her plants with a stream that appeared to be little more than a gentle drip. My favorite part of the memory being her trademark outfit of an antebellum lady sun hat, baggy t-shirt and plaid printed shorts standing in her enormous "snake proof" rain boots.

I miss that woman. I wish I had appreciated her for what she was while I had the chance.

Her love of gardening, or what might even be considered homesteading, or hoarding, or even sometimes pillaging, was apparent to me at a very young and impressionable age. I could remember, before she even bought her first lot of land or tilled her first vegetable bed, she would have us loot a fruit tree or gather pecans right in the center of town. "No one else wants it. What do they care? Keep picking," she would say as if to try to encourage me to lose my sense of propriety. Really, what did it matter if the children I wanted to befriend and their families happen to catch mine foraging at the bank parking lot just because my mother didn't want some unnoticed nuts to go to waste? She wasn't even the type that would go, "oh a wild peach tree! I’ll just stop and grab a few on the way home." No. She would make us stay there all day if it took, in that tree, climbing higher and higher until we had thrown down nearly the entire bounty of that odd man out peach tree in a forest bordering the highway. And then she would get angry at us when we ran out of enthusiasm for weeks on end of different experimental ways we could eat a peach. Peach cobbler, peach pancakes, peach marmalade, peaches sliced, peaches canned, peaches in ice cream, peaches in oatmeal, peaches in whatever way she could before the hoard went sour. Every year.

Thank God she eventually bought her own plants and set about turning our suburban backyard into her own personal snakes' den full of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, and plums. I won't even go into detail about her farm in the middle of a family neighborhood, but I will say that she turned our screened in patio into a chicken coop full of loud and varied poultry. It became harder for me to even believe in a sustainable social life. Not surprising anyone, I gave up pretty early on in my preadolescence and settled down to just being that weird girl.

I still miss her, though.

I learned things from her about gardening that I tried to cross reference in my adult years. For instance, she planted a pear tree that didn't bear fruit and from her memory of being in Taiwan, she knew she needed to find some rusty nails and hammer them right into the trunk of the tree. The following year and every year after that, the Japanese pear tree in our backyard would produce such an enormous amount of large, crisp pears that its limbs resembled that of a weeping willow that bent to the ground under the weight of so much fruit.

Her garden farm was never pretty or laid out in a way that would inspire the phrase “Glory be to God”. It was just functional or efficient or amateurish. If you looked at the way it yielded so much more than could be consumed by the few people willing to eat her delicious, authentic Taiwanese dishes, you might see the desperation that comes from a childhood of being the youngest daughter in a large family that never felt she had enough to eat. But my mother was also a very generous woman, and she “donated” her plentiful stock to her neighbors and any one in the local Chinese society (all twelve of them).

Her claim to fame could probably be the kinds of exotic vegetation she grew from the annually smuggled seeds of her native country, which couldn’t be found anywhere in the southeast. Going through customs with her was an absolute nightmare and this was pre 9/11. If they had a naughty list, she was definitely on it. She would lose plenty and yell at them like they were in the wrong, but as we walked away with our ransacked luggage, she would wink, smile and tell me which hiding places they happened to miss. Maybe that’s why I pray so much... I always felt responsible to pray for her.

How could I not miss her?

She also taught me the importance of plant identification by the way she would exclaim, “Oh! That’s a (such and such)! Oh, I want to eat it!! Oh it’s so delicious, let’s go get it,” as we passed by some wild vegetation or herb in some place completely inappropriate for picking, like someone’s yard. I have never outgrown hearing that voice as I still seem to look at an overgrown lot and wonder what in the bunch could be eaten. I also find myself staring at the fruits of trees I can’t identify and having the urge to just steal some for personal consumption; my mouth watering the entire time I contemplate what it might be hanging from the limbs.

She left inside me a love for plants when she passed away. I have so many regrets from not spending more time with her in her garden. I could have learned how she took a seed and made it grow into an overwhelming plant that would complete the cycle of life by providing her with more than enough seeds for the following season. I could have learned how she was able to have persimmons planted outside, surviving winters, and bearing fruit with just the love she showed when wrapping them with blankets. I could have inherited more than enough with just having earned her ingrained green thumb.

My mother was made up of a lot of qualities, good and bad, but for all she lacked in morals she was blessed in spirit. It’s those memories I hold onto and it’s that Momma I take with me in my life today. The wonderful woman who inadvertently taught me about the natural world is the grandmother I will teach to my children and the lady I have finally come to truly admire.

May she forever rest in peace.

Much love and kind regards, Shainna🌼

My mother and father in Massachusetts, USA in 1977

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