Andrew Blair was my grandmother’s father, a handsome, fussy Scot with an ego disproportionate to his environment. To be a snob in West Virginia is to exhibit a gross miscalculation of your milieu. That said, his garden was spectacular.
Like many of my ancestors, Andrew was a potter. He labored long hours in a crowded, dusty factory a short stroll from his house and, more importantly, his garden—a living testament to the magnificence he so mightily believed he should be surrounded by. He grew pale green hydrangeas, bushels of peonies, falls of clematis, hollyhocks high as horses. The picket fence held up roses and lilies and meandering vines that wove throughout like tapestry. Families posed for photos in front of the yard. My mother recalls her Easter snapshots taken amid the riot of color and scent, the grass carpeted with tulips, every nook exploding with ornamentation, a hillbilly Versailles.
My grandfather’s father, Alvin Thornberry, was also a potter and a green thumb. Born in 1893, one of seven kids, Pappy started full time in the factory at 13, cleaning dishware for 60 cents a day. He became a turner, then a handler, sticking handles onto coffee cups, flattening the ends with his fingertip.
Pappy took a less studied approach to his gardening, as he did to life. Where Andrew stiffened and gritted his teeth to the wind, Pappy reclined and enjoyed the breeze. He liked his drink and his horse racing. He was known to hitchhike to the track in bare feet—after his strident, pious wife had hidden his shoes to keep him home.
His yard reflected this mischievousness. Pole beans clambered up the house. Tomatoes felled their stakes. Sunflowers congregated haphazardly in the corner, leaning on each other like men at a bar. Many of his plantings were volunteers. Weeds were not uncommon.
Pappy sang to his plants. Andrew sang to no one. Pappy tilled in work pants and a porkpie hat. Andrew pruned in suit and tie. And yet, in both houses there were jars of fresh flowers, blooms that reminded them that life could be beautiful, that they could make it so.
Both men outlived their wives by decades, choosing to remain in their family homes, amid the greenery they had grown accustomed to, the comforting returns of work long completed. Andrew took to painting flowers on the dishes and vases in his private studio (the garden shed, with his hand-cranked potter’s wheel). Pappy continued to sing, and hitchhike to the racetrack.
I remember seeing Pappy once in his backyard, wrestling with his sunflowers, collecting seeds for roasting. He was 99, independent and alone, but not lonely. Instead, he was sustained by memories, and by the life he pulled every summer from the dirt.