Aunt Roberta’s Sunflowers

“The garden is the place I go for refuge and shelter . . .I feel protected and at home, and every flower and weed is a friend.”

Elizabeth Von Arnim, 1898 from the book The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors by Jackie Bennett.

As both a writer and a textile artist, I had been continually inspired by the gardens my family created, particularly my Aunt Roberta’s garden. She was born and raised in Arkansas, but came to Chicago at the age of 16 to make a better life for herself. She worked as a nanny in the Evanston, Illinois area. When she got off at the Purple Line Station, she bought fabric for her mother in Arkansas, who was my maternal great grandmother, on sale at Vogue Fabrics on Main Street. Years later, when I became a graduate student at Northwestern University, I too, would shop at that same store for clearance fabric and stare at the quilts my family created with those fabric remnants Aunt Roberta gathered.

“Hi Aunt Roberta, it’s me again.” I said.

“You like to get here early,” she said.

“Always,” I replied.

“A lot of young folks to don’t enjoy this type of thing,” she said as she listened to the wailing of the police sirens in the background.

My Aunt Roberta’s favorite flower was the sunflower. It is my favorite flower as well. Her garden was unique in that it consisted primarily of sunflowers. Maybe a lot of young people didn’t get into this type of thing, but as far as I was concerned, this garden and our ritual of sitting within it was one of the best kept secrets on the South Side of Chicago. Although I am five foot seven, I received warm embraces of the sunflowers as if I were a toddler. As I walked straight to the stairs of the house, I felt pats of reassurance on my back from the leaves growing from each stalk. This garden was a serene and sacred place from the congestion of Lake Shore Drive that was located less than four blocks away. The sunflowers acted as a protective barrier for the both of us from the harshness outside. The rustling of the leaves whispered, “You’re special to us. We will all be here when you come back from all the madness out there.”

I got to the end of this jungle path, held my bag containing my sewing kit close. I brought a jar of lemonade from the local health food store with me. Like most centarians or near centarians I knew, she didn’t eat much. As a registered nurse, I still haven’t figured out the direct correlation to this phenomena and longevity. Her third husband who died many years ago told her, “You eat like a bird.”

“They know a little something about what it takes to be happy and free,” she said to him. She enjoyed looking at the birds that made themselves at home within her well tended garden. The red cardinals and canaries were my favorite. There was a story on the news about a pet store truck that took a spill and some exotic birds flew out of their cages. It wasn’t my imagination when I saw lime green parrots sitting on top of the wire fence around her garden. They just stared at us.

Although there were sweat beads on her forehead, Aunt Roberta seemed disinterested in anything, but the task in front of her, which was the loving care her sunflowers. I emerged inside of her home, the air conditioning creating goose bumps on my skin. I figured I had all winter to experience cold, so I tried to make my time within her house quick. Everything was vintage, antique and orderly just the way I liked it. I got two glasses from the kitchen cabinet.

The glasses sat on the concrete sill of the porch outside. The lemonade also remained outside in a cooler filled with ice just in case we wanted to drink it, but we didn’t.  I needed this type of reprieve. The mindfulness. The stillness. The beauty. Not paying close attention to what was uncomfortable to achieve what was most needed to bloom. I sat on the porch, stitching my grandmother’s flower garden quilt by hand.

I am a fifth generation textile artist. My family quilts, knits, does crochet and sews clothes. I have also taken a weaving class. The book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands by Carrie Barron, MD and Alton Barron, MD, both Columbia University doctors, highly encourage handcrafts, such as gardening and quilting, for emotional well being. However, Aunt Roberta and I hadn’t read the latest literature. We just did it without getting the current seal of approval from doctors.

This was a good thing. In all the years I worked as a nurse and received counseling did I ever hear about the restorative healing power of handwork until just recently. Perhaps it is because it was considered “women’s work,” something that wasn’t esteemed by academics. Maybe it was because our lives have become so out of balance, the medical community has now taken notice. People do not understand how to make themselves slow down and be in the moment with something as simple as dirt and flower seeds, needle, thread and fabric. Whenever I hear someone say, “How much will this cost?” or “What is in it for you?” I usually know that I am speaking to someone who is in need of soul healing, but may not know how to do that.

Although I was sewing a quilt with sunflowers and Aunt Roberta was growing them, she didn’t seem to mind that I did my gardening with needles and threads. We admired each other’s work. For Aunt Roberta, respite came from her garden. She adored when the weather would break in Chicago. When she was working, it meant that she could rise at 5: 30 am and tend to her garden both before work and sometimes afterwards. No AM broadcasts of bad news for her. No phone calls to talk badly about people she couldn’t control.

“You can’t always start your day like that,” she said. “It helps to have something to look forward to.” Listening to her, I usually left the television off as I prepared for work as well.

“Mornings are always the absolute best time to be in the garden,” she said. Aside from the fact that your day has just started, Aunt Roberta believed everyone should start their day with passion. Start your day doing exactly what you loved and you’d find that life was positive.

At the end of her garden time, Aunt Roberta used to run herself a tub of hot water with Epsom salts that would turn warm while she worked in her garden. “You need to try it. It’s a good practice. It relaxes you and keeps the evil spirits away,” she said.

As a child of the New Age, I have meditated in groups all over the city, but I must say it is this through the handcrafts of gardening and textile arts that I was first introduced to the practice of mindfulness. My own life was a gradual reworking, turning, planting and replanting process. I was working full time as a nurse and going to graduate school part time in creative writing program at Northwestern University. I was also enrolled in weekly domestic violence counseling. My Aunt Roberta, having gone through many of the exact same challenges, would ask me to join her in her garden, of which I would gladly oblige.

Instead of talking about my own personal experiences, I listened to her tell me the story of her 99 years of life. “Listen to me honey, if you can’t make it, then you can’t make it,” she said. “Let me tell you what happened.”

I knew the story already, but never tired of hearing about it again.

“My third husband was the charm, but Lord knows I didn’t have any charms when I was with husbands one and two. And there were no gardens, either. I don’t know what I was thinkin’. Husband number two was somethin’ else. Always comin’ in, spillin’ over drunk and you never knew what he would do somethin’ wrong afterwards. You leave them types alone. Just like you, I had made a plan to get out of there. You can always do something else if you want to. Just as soon as I did, I said to myself, ‘I am going to go out and have me a garden.’ I had to get back to me. I found a rooming house, got me some plants and went to work. I was feeling pretty good. Then, I met husband number three. He wanted to marry me and he even made sure I had a garden. That’s what the good ones will do. Those are the ones you have to look out for. They will make sure you have your joy. He was happy. I was happy. And my plants were happy, too.”

While all the self help books and counseling I received was helpful, this practice between us was the most helpful for me. She lived until the age of 99, but her 99 years of wisdom meant more to me than anything counseling could ever provide. I absorbed her comfort like a seed being given the water to grow. She was transferring the same nurturance and care she gave to her plants onto me. Her sunflowers stood up proud like school children within a play, pictures within a yearbook with the caption, “Most Likely to Succeed.”

“I’m gonna dig you up some sunflowers for you to take home with you,” she said. “Never let anything or anyone steal your joy.”

Aunt Roberta's Sunflowers Back of Quilt Aunt Roberta's Sunflowers Quilt