I’d been casually chatting with my father about my growing orchid obsession. He looked at me a little funny – nothing out of the ordinary there – when he dropped a bomb, “You know, your grandfather grew these orchids.”
No, no I didn’t know that. I’d remembered the greenhouses from my early childhood. Every other weekend, I recall, we’d go to a certain greenhouse or another, which is why the smell of that good green growing earth makes me nostalgic and warm inside. I remember being a toddler, spending hours at the rose garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, listening to my family plan my future wedding there. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I did not marry there.
My grandfather grew roses – beautiful roses – always puttering around with them, lovingly spraying them with this and that, warding off all potential pests and coaxing out the most beautiful, heavenly-scented blooms.
When I grew my own rose garden, lovingly spraying them with this and that, warding off potential pests, and coaxing out the most beautiful, heavenly-scented blooms, I’d think of him. Not at first. But eventually, I felt as though he was right there beside me, helping me identify pests and apply the proper fertilizers.
The orchids, though, they threw me through a loop. Until I found this:
That’s an orchid bloom in my curls.
My grandfather is with me always, it seems.
He is my hero.
And not just because he grew orchids and roses like I do, but because he lived the sort of live I hope to live. It was a life less ordinary.
He graduated from Johns Hopkins medical school at nineteen and became a doctor at the same age that my life hit a crossroads. I’d always planned to go to medical school myself, and life found a way. I became a mother.
He worked as the sort of family doctor that made housecalls, his forceps and stethoscope always in his medical bag, ready to deliver a baby, diagnose rubella, or treat a broken arm. It was during these housecalls that he was exposed to tuberculosis and spent many months at a TB sanatorium in the mountains, missing out on his first son’s – my father’s – early life.
Before that, though, he was a doctor in the United States Army. He was the first on the scene when the Allies liberated the concentration camps. He was the first medical personnel to treat the concentration camp victims. He never spoke of those days, what he saw, the atrocities of the Nazi’s, and what he had to do to help the survivors, although I know they weighed on him.
By the time I rolled around, he’d given up his medical practice and became the head of pathology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The apple of his eye, his granddaughter, he spent as much time with as he could. Weekends roaming the botanical gardens. Nights at Ravinia, on the lawn, under the stars, listening to the magical strains of Saint Matthew’s Passion and The 1812 Overture, eating fried chicken on a picnic blanket. Those were the best days of my young life.
An adult with children of my own, my grandfather long-passed, I have the vain hope that one day, my life will, too, be remembered as less ordinary, if only by myself. That because of the choices I’ve made, the people I carry in my heart, the people who now (however virtually) walk by my side, the experiences I’ve put behind me, that my own life can be as far from ordinary as his.
I’d say that I miss you, Grandpa, but I know you’re always with me.
Today, tomorrow, always.