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When I was 8 years old, my mother and I moved in with my great-grandmother. While my mother worked during the day, my 'Buelita would look after me. Before long, we became very, very close and that relationship was perhaps the most influential one in my life.
My bisabuela loved cooking, singing, scary movies and gardening. In fact, she had the most incredible garden and grew not just food, but impossibly perfect flowers, too. I used to joke that she could just look at a plant and it would grow before her very eyes.
That garden held a special power; she once told me that she sometimes dreamed that she was walking through her garden talking with Jesus. Such an admission blew my mind because I had never heard of anyone dreaming such a thing, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to make up my mind if her admission was blasphemous or sacred. (I ultimately went with sacred because she was so devoted to her religious beliefs.)
As a result, I spent countless hours in her garden trying to learn her mysterious skill and hoping just the teensiest bit of her green thumb would rub off on me. She grew roses as big as my face, corn that stood so tall I imagined I could climb it to touch the sky, and many other plants she'd use for medicines or recipes.
Now that I'm an adult with a home of my own, I try to spend time as often as I can in my garden. It helps me relax and grounds me after a busy day with the kids or work. I find immense satisfaction in the 28 giant trees in our front yard, especially the two massive oaks that shade our home from the hot summer sun. There's too much area for me to manage alone, but there are small pockets where my husband and I have carved out carefully tended flower beds. In the spring, the azaleas shout a riot of color that I can see from every single window in my house. I've tried, succeeded and failed with a variety of plants, and I continue to learn which plants work in the spaces I've chosen and which ones don't.
My great-grandmother has long since passed away, but she is frequently in my mind. And in my garden, I find moments to experience the closeness and love that we shared when I was young. When I think back to those times spent with her in her garden, I realize just how much she taught me without talking at me.
Photograph by Monica Olivera
Here are nine of the profound life lessons I learned from gardening with my bisabuela.
1. Every living thing has basic needs. It seems so obvious, but we all share basic needs: food, water, air, shelter and love. In this we are all the same. So why do we focus so much on the differences?
2. Every living thing is unique. I know this sounds contradictory, but even though we all share basic needs, the fruit we produce is specific to each one of us. Just as some plants produce delicious, edible fruit and others specialize in magnificent blooms, our differences are what make us all unique.
3. Giant trees grow from tiny seeds. So do movements. So does social change. All of them start with an idea that someone has. Don't be afraid to dream, and don't be afraid to grow that dream or that idea into something big.
4. Grow where you're planted and bloom. When you find the right conditions, it's OK to be happy and to let that happiness show. It's easy to be productive when you find you are in the right place.
5. Beauty is everywhere, we just have to actively look to find it. We are almost always surrounded by beauty but too often, we are too busy to see it. My abuelita taught me how to look for and find beauty in unexpected places.
6. Kind, loving words are never wasted. Have you ever heard about how plants grow better when exposed to classical music? Well, the same is true when you speak to them with love. And this also goes for people. Even when our kindness isn't reciprocated, it is still internalized and plants that tiny seed of change.
7. Not all bugs are bad. Sometimes things aren't what they seem and good can come from the unlikeliest of places.
8. Neglect leads to chaos. I have learned this firsthand over and over again. When I forget about a flower bed because I'm too busy with other things, the end result isn't pretty. Weeds take over and all sorts of garbage gets tracked in. We have to be diligent and nurture our projects to achieve success.
9. Success takes patience and time. Big, beautiful blooms don't just happen overnight. But with patience and perseverance, your hard work can yield outstanding results.