Our Grandmothers' Gardens

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
May 14, 2017
Rev. M. Susan Milnor
To get to my grandmother you had to walk through her garden. She lived with my aunt, whose unimposing but graceful old frame house in Knoxville, Tennessee required visitors to enter through the garden. 
From late March through October, something always bloomed – tulips, snapdragons, zinnias, chrysanthemums, roses and roses and roses. Walking into that garden meant entering a mysterious world. How could someone create this paradise of color from the dark Tennessee soil?  Did the flowers grow from an unspoken vision nursed in the dark of night or over a floured kneading board in the kitchen?  How could my little grandmother make it happen?
Part Cherokee, part Scottish, Jessie Lee had an apparent calm and, paradoxically, a temper that flared openly. She gave birth to ten children, lost two in infancy, and raised eight from the first decade of the 20th century through the Great Depression. Her children deeply respected “Mama,” but they knew she was a woman to be reckoned with.  When my mother told Jessie Lee that she and my father had eloped to be married by a justice of the peace, it did not go well.  A week or so later, a minister married them again, in church. 
For all her firmness of hand, my grandmother coped with a challenging life.  My grandfather was a sometimes-unemployed house painter by trade, a landscape painter and an opera lover by passion.  He spent long hours tucked away in the attic, working on his canvasses, listening to opera, and leaving my grandmother to care for their life. He needed his spirit nourished, but Jessie Lee struggled to feed and care for eight children. She made all their clothes, cut their hair, grew and canned much of their food.  She managed to get them all through high school but could not send them to college.
My grandmother’s life was not like that of Alice Walker’s African American mother, who lived with extreme poverty, physical abuse, and the daily grind of blatant racial humiliation.  In her essay, “Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Walker says it frankly.  Black women have been the “mules” of our society, dumped with everything that no one else wanted to do, looked down on, and crushed by cruelty and indifference.  More than raging about what happened to her foremothers, though, Walker mourns the losses:  creativity squelched by impossible hardship, artistic spirits that never had a moment or a space to find expression. Did you have a genius of a great-great-great grandmother who “was required to bake biscuits . . . when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands?” Walker asks. . . “Or was her body broken and forced to bear . . . eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children - when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?” 
Many of you will remember Virginia Woolf’s classic small volume, A Room of Her Own, in which she argues that women appear too infrequently among the ranks of great writers because historically they have lacked rooms, both literal and spiritual, of their own, as well as time and attention to devote to their art.   It was a profoundly obvious truth yet is it the whole truth?   What then are we to make, asks Alice Walker, of colonial poet Phyllis Wheatley, “a slave, who owned not even herself” yet managed to leave the legacy of poems that shimmer with life’s grace as well as its struggle?
In Euro-Western culture, we see art as something that embodies greatness, yet we believe there is not enough greatness to go around. There’s a scarcity of possibility built into our very idea of art.   We also have the sense that true art is somehow new. After Picasso, who can be a cubist?  After Monet, what can anyone really do with impressionism?  In our revering of it, art seems to live in the past.
Yet there is hanging in the Smithsonian Institute a quilt portraying in fanciful, unique, simple figures the Crucifixion of Christ.  It is considered rare and priceless, and although made from bits and pieces of worthless rags, it emerged from a powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling. The note hanging below it says it was made by “an anonymous black woman in Alabama a hundred years ago.” Even while living on the edge, many foremothers held onto that creative urge.  In their consuming domestic work, they found the way to give form to the spirit, a spirit they passed on to daughters and sons.  Mailou Awiakta wrote a wonderful poem called “Motherroot, “ which appears in the collection Abiding Appalachia.
Creation often
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
. . . 
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart 
unsung, unseen.
A heart unsung and unseen.  On Mother’s Day, we are surrounded by reminders of the gratitude many of us owe birth and adoptive mothers for their care of us.  But not everyone received such legacies from a mother, who might not have been there.  My own relationship with my mother was never easy, a narrative which does not belong here. But so many women over my life have extended acceptance and care, counsel to me, beyond the ties of blood kinship:  my aunt Mary, my older sister, my third grade teacher, my third grade teacher, my friend Rita, the Rev. Betty Baker, minister of religious education, parish minister, and wise woman par excellence.   I hope on this day we can acknowledge the contributions to our lives not only of those the world calls our mothers, but to all the women who have given us life and helped to make us whole. 
When it comes to our family mothers, let us celebrate whatever made them stitch their creativity into time and, so often, into us.  Alice Walker’s mother worked in the fields of a sharecropper to feed her family; she gave her genius daughter everything she could.  But what touched Walker most was that her mother honored her tie to beauty and creativity: “Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of bulbs, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses, or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees – until night came and it was too dark to see. Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. “
My own mother, Jessie Lee’s daughter, grew nothing in the ground, but she could make pies to die for.  My father’s co-workers at the Southern Railway begged him to bring them to work; at every family reunion, it was a given that my mother would bring a pie. She could make any kind but was known most of all for crusts.  
On Saturdays, the baking time, Mother sometimes threw away two piecrusts because of their imperfection and then finally used the third.  A crack here, too brown to pair with the perfect filling -- my mother would not allow a marriage incomplete for the lack of ceremony.  For a long time, it seemed to me evidence of troubling perfectionism. It never occurred until I read Alice Walker that she was an artist, otherwise unseen and unsung, a heart nearly lost in a life of disappointments.  Who, after all, would fault Picasso for starting over three times? If we find his first attempts, we deem them priceless studies and hang them in museums.  Our mothers and foremothers knew, some of them, without saying it, that creation often needs two hearts:  one to take root and one to flower. In making us, in struggling with their lives, the women who raised us and taught us gave us root, but in the expression of their spirits, we hope they flowered. 
My mother would be a bit dismayed by a daughter who pulls a pre-made crust from the freezer.  Jessie Lee would be disappointed in a granddaughter without a green finger on her hand, and she if she saw that granddaughter officiate a wedding, she might not think the marriage was valid.  There is continuity, though.   Saturdays often find me at the computer, trying to get the sermon right, muttering to myself, hitting the delete key on a section and starting again.
When my mother died, she lay in the same bed in which over the years of my childhood I lay as she nursed me through illness.  It was the bed where she made tents for the vaporizer; brought me popsicles when the measles invaded my mouth; stood over me and tended me like a garden.  And in the beauty of April,1977, with azaleas and dogwoods at peak, I stood beside this woman who brought me into the world as she left it. 
It was on that day that gardens and piecrusts grew dear to me.  It was on that day that I began, consciously, to tend my mother’s garden, and the garden of her mother before her, and her mother before her. How fitting, then, that last night my daughter would have liked her father and me to be at the rose ceremony marking her graduation in a Master’s degree program in acting. I wonder if the creative passion at the center of her life came from my grandmother and mother and me, yet so many other mothers, many artists, have nurtured her as well. 
Let us tend the gardens of the soul, backwards and forward in time, through the circle of life, until the beginning and the end meet. May all our foremothers, our aunts, the wise women, the ancient ones who tended the gardens of the soul, those who created the little slips of Paradise in the tumble of this world, forever blessed be. 
Copyright   Susan Milnor   2017
Source: Walker, Alice.  In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1984.