By Kelly Riordan
Found in Issue #1
“Nature – where Order in Variety we see,
And where, though all things differ,
– Poem by Alexander Pope (1668-1744) as engraved in the fireplace
mantel in the Garden House. (This poem is also inscribed in the fireplace mantel at my parents’ house.)
Photos by Alice Waraxa
The first time I saw my grandfather naked, I was 9 years old, and didn’t know it was him. Crouched above a fountain, beside an equally naked woman and young boy, the figure staring back at me couldn’t have been more than 10 years old – a mere year older than me. I was confused – and totally grossed out. What were three naked people doing in the middle of a park? And why had my third-grade teachers chosen to take us on a field trip here?
“These three statues represent Kelly’s grandfather, great-grandmother, and great uncle,” Mrs. Choren explained to my tittering peers. She glanced at me knowingly, as if I’d understood all along these three nudists were relatives of mine.
“Kelly’s last name is Riordan, but her mother’s last name is Boerner, so the Boerner Botanical Gardens have a special meaning to her,” she continued. “That’s a big reason we’re here today.”
Dozens of curious 9-year-old eyes settled upon me, seeking explanation, but I had questions of my own. Why did my grandfather get to be a statue, and I didn’t? Did it hurt when they took his body out of the concrete mold? How was any of this even possible? My grandfather was 75 years old, which meant this statue had to be a representation of what he looked like had he, at some point, been a child, right?
All day, I walked with my brow furrowed, through rows of blooming roses and gardens of purple snapdragons, blue violets, and cheerful, white daisies.
I was being told this place was special to me but I couldn’t figure out why.
I wasn’t totally stupid. I knew I was somehow biologically attached to the garden’s history. What I struggled with was why it mattered. Everyone – my parents, my grandparents, my teachers, friends of my family – told me to “be proud of my roots” (pun intended), but the more they insisted, the more I resisted. It didn’t help that the people telling me to care were 40 years older than me.
It was something else too. No one took the time to tell me why I should care. Every time I tried summoning the pride everyone else in my family had, I just ended up feeling confused, and eventually, apathetic.
Now, of course, my apathy and confusion make sense to me. After all, any 9-year-old child with an appreciation for horticulture is either a savant or strange. At the time, though, I couldn’t understand why rock gardens and hanging plants didn’t make my young heart flutter. Ultimately, the garden was nothing more than another thing my parents wanted me to love. So I stopped trying.
It wasn’t until the end of high school, when a community service requirement arose, that the place re-entered my mind. I wracked my brain for weeks trying to figure out where I could complete my hours, until finally, I sat down with my Dad, hoping he’d be able to help me out. Almost instantly, he suggested the Boerner Gardens. I was, after all, related to the place.
Here’s where, if this were a movie, I’d be struck by some lightning bolt of realization. In an insurmountable nod to my destiny I would find an unrestrained, indescribable fascination with gardening. Instead, it was much simpler: A high school community service project brought me cautiously back. Luckily, it was exactly what I needed.
Maybe I was finally old enough, or maybe it was the freedom that comes from not being forced to appreciate something on someone else’s terms. I could finally walk through the garden and find meaning. I walked through rows of roses and gardens of purple snapdragons, blue violets, and cheerful white daisies. I meandered along the winding wooden boardwalk that led to a charming, hidden rock garden I’d all but completely forgotten. I stood above the koi pond and discretely tossed tiny stones into the water to tempt the big fish to swim toward me. I studied the statue of my relatives and tried to imagine the garden before all of this – when it was just a bright green, wooded oasis, ready for a young architect’s vision to alter it forever.
What I felt wasn’t the fierce pride I’d always thought I should feel. It was a soft, sober admiration for a man who’d wanted to create something beautiful, and disbelief that this kind of dogged determination ran in my blood. My great grandfather’s ambition—his garden— stood in front of me, more than seven decades after its creation. I finally thought the place was cool. It wasn’t just some boring garden, it was the physical manifestation of a dream.
Ten years later, I still visit the Boerner Gardens now and then. I’ve helped plant bulbs in the black soil, and I’ve led children through the winding green paths, letting them absorb the beauty of the place for themselves. I see it as a beautiful place to be, and a suggestion of the big things I might be able to accomplish in my lifetime. With any luck, maybe I’ll be a naked statue someday too.