gifts from gran's garden

Photographs line the hall at Senior Services in Winston-Salem. There’s former governor Jim Hunt beaming as he delivers the one millionth meal. Arnold Palmer smiles alongside a white-haired woman as he hands her the five millionth meal. On the 50th anniversary of the Meals-on-Wheels program of Forsyth County, Richard Petty sits between its founder and a client, sporting his trademark shades, cowboy hat, and mustachioed grin. Every photo is a snapshot of the organization’s history of helping frail and housebound elderly people continue to live at home. It’s a story of commitment.

In a large room just beyond the pictures stand 10 women — snipping, taping, tying, and arranging. They are similarly committed to bringing outdoor beauty to indoor lives.

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When Lila Cruikshank’s mother, Lila Womble Jenkins, died in August 2006, friends came to help the younger Lila arrange flowers for a lunch after the funeral service. Looking back, Lila realized that the gathering — the warm presence of her friends, the stories and memories of her mother they shared, and the very act of making something lovely — had been both meaningful, and a means of assuaging her sorrow. Jenkins had been someone who loved people, loved her garden, loved sharing its gifts, and loved living at home, even at an advanced age. For her daughter Lila, the leap to creating the Gifts from Gran’s Garden program was a short one, a perfect storm of beauty, kindness, and legacy.

Solomon’s seal. Rose of Sharon. Zinnias. Roses. Crape myrtle and black-eyed Susans. Alstroemeria and baby’s-breath. They arrive in humble plastic buckets and mayo jars, a brilliant abundance of flowers and foliage plucked from backyards and kitchen gardens, from fields and Harris Teeter aisles. Twice a month, Lila and her corps of cohorts — “I recruited someone in line at Chick-fil-A today!” one announces — arrive bearing blooms, and they get right to work. Here, hours earlier, meals were packed into coolers for the day’s deliveries. One volunteer tapes grids over the tops of round vases. Another cuts strips of ribbon. Another sorts a stack of flower-sprigged and calico fabric. And everyone arranges. Stems are snipped and bunched in delicate glass vials. A leafy stalk punctuates a mass of low, pink crape myrtles, while Shasta daisies wear a collar of hosta leaves.

During the school year, garden clubs often volunteer at one of the bimonthly Gifts from Gran’s Garden sessions. During summer months, however, Lila’s crew, some of whom have been arranging since the get-go eight years ago, and some of whom are nearly newcomers, take every shift. Today, Marcia, Patsy, and a half-dozen more will arrange 43 wrapped-and-ribboned nosegays, which will accompany Meals on Wheels trays on tomorrow’s routes. The social workers and employees who deliver care and meals to the homebound are beneficiaries themselves—of the recipients’ surprised and smiling faces.

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Many of the women garden. (Barbara has 300 roses, and 80 hydrangeas. “I’m a little obsessed,” she admits.) But neither a green thumb nor a talent for creating nosegays is necessary for this labor of love. Rather, the job’s only requirements are a willingness to give time, and an understanding of why a tiny arrangement makes a difference in a stranger’s life. “Anything that you put together will be loved,” Lila says.

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Practical assistance for the homebound — help with bathing, for example — is always necessary, but “people need beauty, as well,” says Senior Services president and CEO Richard Gottlieb. And when you no longer can plant seeds and pick blooms, when you haven’t received a gift of flowers since your spouse died years ago; when your single hot meal arrives in a tinfoil container, a nosegay of daisies with boxwood sprigs is as welcome — and special.

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Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.