Between the lavender bed and the sage, the supplies for herbal “ancestors” awaited the eager children.
When my cousin and I decided to organize a family reunion of the descendents of my maternal grandparents, I offered my place for the event. Both my parents are deceased, so family has become increasingly important to me, and because we come from a long line of dedicated gardeners, this seemed the perfect occasion to introduce present generations to the pleasures of herb gardening. In short order, the cousins set the date, and I began to bombard our relatives with letters, updates, and e-mail.
I recalled the reunions I had attended as a child. I’d come away from them confused about how all those people were related to me—and amazed at the huge array of food. The relatives had patted me on the head, kissed me, and praised me with “Look how he’s grown!”
I realize now that this is part and parcel of every family reunion, but I wanted to give the children who would attend this one something more—fun and good memories centered in their heritage of gardening. I hoped that they could gain a vivid sense of our forebears as well as a feeling that folks young and old can enjoy plants and gardening.
In puzzling over how, exactly, to do this, I remembered a contest I was asked to judge at the Prairie Peddler Herb Farm’s annual festival: the kids had been provided with piles of straw, dried gourds, and old children’s clothes as well as small wooden frames, and then turned loose to construct miniature scarecrows. I adapted the idea for the reunion.
The family arrived from several states coast to coast. We were busy from morning to night. Many had not met or hadn’t seen each other since childhood. A new generation had been born and grown to adulthood since I had last seen some family members. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a tour of the gardens, and I enjoyed introducing my kin to the tastes, fragrances, and uses of herbs, many for the first time.
One afternoon, I called all the children to the deck overlooking the gardens and announced the plan to make “ancestors,” representations of long-ago relatives. Below, between the lavender bed and the sage, waited gourds that looked like prospective heads, markers for drawing, wood-scrap scarecrow frames, hay bales, and boxes of thrift-shop kids’ clothes. I had also harvested piles of long thyme strands for them to use as hair.
The young children raced down the steps and grabbed “heads,” frames, and clothes. We helped little fingers tie gourds to the top of the frames and dress the ancestors. The kids stuffed the clothes with straw, drew faces on the gourds, and snatched up herbs to use for hair and decorations.
One six-year-old drew a long face and attached a beard made of wooly thyme, a “great-great-grandfather,” he said. One of the girls dressed her ancestor like a gardener and gave it a trowel, flower pot, and lots of thyme hair, “because we’re in your garden.” I encouraged the children to select additional herbs for their figures and was surprised at how they carefully followed directions for removing sprigs without damaging the plants. Sage, blue salvia, and garlic-leaf braids soon adorned the ancestors.
Soon parents with cameras arrived and began photographing the children, their figures, and the gardens. Other relatives strolled to the gardens, too, curious about the busy gathering. We asked each child to stand next to his or her figure and chuckled at the resemblance between each creator and respective creation. The surrounding beauty of the gardens, along with the happy activity of the children and their humorous creations, fostered more conversation about the admirable gardeners of past generations.
Months have passed since the reunion, but every morning I look out at the garden’s raised bed, where the ancestors stand, looking for all the world like a group of kindergartners on tour. Lemon balm and zinnias grow around their legs, and fennel and rhubarb make a colorful backdrop. The little scarecrows remind me of the reunion; I hope the children of my family remember that day fondly, too, as they become adults, and perhaps grow a few herbs for themselves—and their own children.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.