Three Wishes

Three Wishes

by Jenny Shank

The secret to keeping a garden is not to burden it with specific hopes. If you don’t expect any one yield from it, you’ll never be disappointed. Scatter seeds, experiment, see what happens. But farmers can’t follow whims as gardeners do—they must calculate expenditures and plant fields judiciously. You’re all in when you buy a farm, probably until death, as the phrase bought the farm implies. This euphemism originated among Air Force pilots in the 1950s as a way to say someone was killed in action, through its reference to many airmen’s fondest wishes: to survive, make it home, and buy a farm. My grandfather’s life fulfilled these three wishes precisely; still, perhaps he should have wished for more. Buy a farm and keep it, he should have wished. But everyone knows you only get three wishes.

My maternal grandparents, John and Agnes Hottovy, were farmers, as were their parents and all the ancestors as far back as anyone can remember. They met in 1943 at a parish dance in Dwight, Nebraska, when John was on furlough from the Air Force. He shipped overseas in 1944 and survived forty-eight missions on a B-24 crew, flying bombing runs over the Himalayas, then came home to Nebraska to marry Agnes in 1945. The first year, they lived with John’s parents and picked corn by hand, chucking the ears into a high-sided wooden wagon drawn by two enormous plow horses, one white and one bay. They harvested enough to earn $500 with corn at ten cents a bushel. “We were newlyweds, in love,” Agnes wrote about that harvest in a family cookbook and history my aunt Carol published to commemorate John and Agnes’s fiftieth anniversary, “so it hardly seemed like work at all.”

John and Agnes came from large Czech families—John had ten siblings and Agnes eleven. Their families were still new Americans, Czech-speaking, having immigrated a few decades after the Civil War during America’s open border period, and claiming land through the Homestead Act of 1862. The U.S. government had taken these traditional bison hunting grounds from the smallpox-devastated Pawnee in an 1833 treaty. So many Czechs immigrated due to overpopulation and lack of farmland and settled in the same part of southeast Nebraska that the gentle rolling hills there became known as the Bohemian Alps. “The Czechs are principally an agricultural people,” Clarence John Kubicek writes in The Czechs of Butler County 1870–1940, a master’s thesis he completed in 1958. “One definite trait that was shown by the early settlers was their calm acceptance of the blows of fate. The early Czech settlers of Nebraska seem to have the uncanny ability to make crops grow.”

Calm acceptance of the blows of fate—is that a laudable achievement? Of the land homesteaded through the extended family’s labors, one farm was available to the newlyweds, 160 acres outside of Ulysses, owned by John’s parents. The farmhouse had sat empty for five years, ever since John’s oldest sister Eleanor died there. Her husband claimed she fell from a chair while hanging curtains. But when Eleanor died, her husband immediately left his three young children with their grandparents and ran off to Omaha with his teenage lover, whom he later married. The family suspected he killed Eleanor. He finally admitted he and Eleanor had a fight, he pushed her, and she fell from a chair. He was charged with manslaughter. Out of this sad history arose my grandparents’ first farm.


I considered myself an amateur gardener because I never began with seed; instead I bought vegetable starts. I’d tried starting seeds inside, but the kids watered the seedlings to death, and we didn’t have much space or window light. Don’t try to be a farmer, I cautioned myself. Just garden.

But, compelled by some instinct as the COVID-19 virus reached Colorado in March of 2020, I planted seeds. They were the first things I bought during my last shopping trip before we hunkered inside. Like Jack in the fable, I looked down at the seeds I had traded for in a foolish exchange, it seemed, for giving up my entire life, and tucked them into dirt-filled pots in my window while snow piled up outside. Was I expecting some beanstalk to sprout that I could climb to my escape?

I was unoriginal in my impulse. The radical shift in our circumstances awakened a collective gardening instinct. Seeds sold out, and on Instagram and Twitter you could watch the growth of stumps of lettuce and celery people had thrust into water glasses in Brooklyn apartment windows. With lives slowed down to plant pace, people marveled over small signs of change. I suspected most of us were not many generations removed from clawing our sustenance out of the land.

One of my writing students last year used puns I’d encouraged. In a marginal note on a scene where a guard told her protagonist to wait for an escort, I wrote, “Please change the car that arrives from a Ford Explorer to a Ford Escort.” She gave me a present after her thesis defense, a tomato-growing kit in a small pine box that read, “Grateful for you from my head To-Ma-Toes!”

When I received it, I thought, tomatoes from seed? Pshaw. But in March I dug it out of the garage. The seed packet bore a picture of a generic round red tomato, and it was labeled, simply, “Tomatoes.” What did that even mean? It was like taking a picture of a specific person and labeling it “man.” Every summer I grew bite-sized sugar-sweet Sungolds, plump scarlet-tinged yellow Big Rainbows, dusky Black From Tulas, enormous red Mortgage Lifters. Tomatoes are particular. These mystery seeds intrigued me, even though I knew with Colorado’s short growing season, hopes were dim for a seed planted in late March to bear fruit before first frost. But seeds are about hope—hope verging on stupidity. You never think about the battering hail, the devouring grasshoppers, or the baking drought, when you plant that first seed. So I planted the To-Ma-Toes.

As lockdown began, my garden tentatively emerged. After a winter of record-breaking snowfall in Boulder, the only flowers peeking through the frigid earth were the first crocuses. When they appeared I fell to my knees outside and raked the winter debris away with my fingernails. I’d always clung to flowers with a sort of desperation. I planted perennials to produce one long continuous bloom from February to October. By the time the bloom was finished, this pandemic would be over, I told myself.


In 1946, when my grandparents moved into the farmhouse where Eleanor died, there was no electricity or running water. They lit the house with kerosene lanterns and hauled water from the well. They had three children—one each in 1947, ‘48, and ‘49—before the Rural Electrification Association put in a line in 1950. That meant cloth diapers scraped clean over a washboard, then hung to freeze dry outside in winter. But my grandmother was game. Grandpa called her “Sport.” They soon installed running water, though indoor toilets and tubs wouldn't come until my mother, born in 1948, was about eight. Saturday night was bath night. The oldest girls went first, and the water became opaque with grime by the time the youngest boy used it.

My grandmother raised chickens whose eggs—sold at forty-five cents per dozen in 1950—financed the family’s groceries and clothing. More children came along. They farmed, and improvements entered their lives. A clothes dryer in 1951. “I can still remember the feel of warm dry diapers as I unloaded the dryer: Oh, Joy!” my grandmother wrote. A television set in 1952. Their first new car, a 1955 two-tone brown Plymouth. Having started with so little, each new convenience seemed a miracle, made possible by seeds plowed into the ground. My grandmother kept a garden and canned green beans, beets, and dill and sweet pickles.

They endured a period of drought and crop loss from 1955 to 1958, inherited half the farmland they’d been working when John's parents died, and purchased the rest from his brother. In 1961 the harvest was so abundant they bought a station wagon to carry all the kids. Grandma had her ninth and final child, her seventh son, in 1962.

But the farm was always hungry. They had to invest in new equipment and lease more land to cultivate. In 1965, my grandparents took evening shift factory jobs in town, my grandmother toiling as a coil winder at Dale Electronics and my grandfather as a sheet metal worker at Behlen Manufacturing. Their shifts ended at two a.m. They went home to sleep a few hours, woke to manage the farm, then drove the hour to Columbus for the six o’clock starts of their shift.

By this point, the children largely had to run the farm and watch themselves. Still, they did well. In 1984, an article in the Columbus Telegram, “Hottovy family completes 19 years of college,” hailed them as the first family of nine siblings to ever graduate from the University of Nebraska, their tuition covered by full-time summer jobs and part-time work all year. My uncle Les famously spent one college summer working in a meat packing plant near the farm. The grisly horrors of that job caused him to eat no meat, nor much of anything else for months, and the flesh slid off him.

In this era, my grandmother seemed formidable. You can find her hairdo on display at Catholic mass: all the Italian, Latina, Filipina, Czech, and Slovak women who had long, dark hair in their youth cut it short for practicality and dyed it blue-black for defiance, the whole creation forged with adamantine bonds of Aqua Net. On these helmets, familial power rested.

My grandmother wrote of farming during the seventies, “The farming economy was on the rise. Land values were making unheard of increases. The banks were eager to make agricultural loans. We increased our farm machinery with new and bigger, better equipment.” But with all those loans, which seemed like a smart bet at the time, the farm became an engine that you could never stop feeding.

On the wall of one bedroom, my grandmother hung a framed cardboard picture of a stitched sampler that read, “Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God.” The picture must have come from an embroidery kit, but she didn’t have the time to actually sew it.


Colorado will punish whoever tries to plant warm season crops before Memorial Day with snow, hail, frigid temperatures. But as May ends, if you hope to yield a harvest, you’d better stick everything in the ground during that one crucial weekend.

The spring of 2020, we barely left our house for more than two months. My To-Ma-Toes sprouted in the window, the seedlings packed so tightly together I separated them gently with a fork and transplanted them to containers. Finally, as Memorial Day approached, I ventured out. I needed soil, compost, and flowers for my porch pots. Also, I wasn’t sure what to do about a pineapple plant my son had begged me to buy the prior year. It had produced one squat little fruit, and then over the winter two additional pineapple suckers sprouted from the original. Did it need more space? I couldn’t bear to see it die. I decided to take it to the store I’d bought it from to ask about it.

My favorite plant store was a seasonal pop-up operation that appeared every spring in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket. It was outdoors, with just a mesh tarp for a roof on one section of the fenced-off area. The owner was man from California named Cary, with a surfer dude accent, strong tan forearms, and the long, honey-blonde bangs and chilled-out vibe of an aging Beach Boy. It felt safer to visit Cary’s place than an indoor garden center. My daughter wanted to come too, to see how the world outside our house looked.

Everyone else in the neighborhood had the same idea. We wore our masks, trying to keep distant from the other shoppers, which was impossible in the narrow aisles. But the plants were so tempting—perhaps the only thing worth risking a dread disease for. We selected red Gerbera daisies, deep purple petunias that looked like a star-strewn sky, a fuchsia geranium, and bright yellow Bidens. We stopped grabbing flowers when we could carry no more. We waited in the long line, nervous, unaccustomed to other people, squishing together, hoping the tarp let enough air circulate, listening to other customers talk about makeshift drive-through graduation celebrations they’d thrown together for their kids.

Finally we reached Cary at the checkout counter. Cary praised the plants we’d selected. I showed him my pineapple, which I’d been lugging around the whole time.

“Do I need to transplant the little plants?” I asked.

“Wow,” he said, “You got it to pup.” He ran his hands over the slips and used a miniature saw to cut away the dead stalks. When you talked to a true plant person, they never looked at you. Their eyes and their hands were all over the plant between you, deadheading, feeling for moisture. I was the same way when people talked to me while I was with my plants. “You want to wait to transplant until the pups have a root structure.” He lifted them to check. “Not yet. But good job—you kept this alive for a year in Colorado!” He dropped his voice. “Most of these people couldn’t do that,” he indicated the other customers with a nod of his chin.

“I don't know what I did,” I said. I cared for plants by pure instinct. My houseplant collection kept growing because I couldn’t stop buying them and I almost never let them die. I kept no schedule with them—I just watered when it felt right. When one appeared to ail, I adjusted its position at the window, sensing a better spot for it, and perked it back up. “I just put it in the window and watered it sometimes.”

“You’ve got the groove,” Cary said, a hint of reverence in his voice. “Just go with it.”

As we carried our plants back to the car, Cary’s praise rang in my head. It was maybe the best compliment I’d ever received, some proof that my ancestors’ skill with plants had not vanished from my hands when the farm was lost. Did I carry the Czech immigrants’ “uncanny ability” to grow plants? Is that what the groove was?

When I returned from plant shopping, I always felt a vague shame that I’d bought too much. But I liked to examine my flaws as if they were to one day be noted in my obituary. She spent too much on plants, mine will read, too much time, too much money, too much care. I could live with that.


In 1980, when I was four, the farm belonging to my grandfather’s parents went up for auction, and my grandparents bid on it, winning it for $1100 an acre. “One bid was higher than ours,” Grandma wrote, “but was rescinded so that the land would be kept in the family.”

They moved to this land from the farmhouse that my mother suspected was haunted by Eleanor’s ghost. As a young girl, she was troubled by recurrent nightmares and visions of a witch flying down from the window of her room, back and forth to the haystack outside. When she traded rooms, the dreams stopped. When Mom was twenty, Grandma mentioned Eleanor had died in Mom’s original bedroom. Mom had no idea of that history—the adults switched to Czech whenever they spoke of it.

The new farm was unhaunted, except by barn cats, and it was my paradise. On the farm, there were so many of us, I became no one in particular. I enjoyed being part of a collective. It gave me space to sneak away to imagine and not be missed.

I’d never been to Disneyland or the ocean, but with the farm to spend summer vacation on, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I loved it absolutely. It didn’t matter that the air in eastern Nebraska in July cloaked me heavily like a hot damp blanket, so the first time I stepped out of the car in Nebraska after entering it in Colorado, the air felt like a foreign substance. How did you breathe this? It smelled of loam and cattle and caused me to sweat without moving. It had stage presence, this air. It demanded notice.

My father always praised the dirt of his native state, so black it looked like chocolate cake crumbling from your spade when you dug into it, compared to the unyielding clay of unamended Colorado soil.

At the farm I was totally free, turned loose with my cousins all day. There were dangers we could have encountered, but our parents trusted those acres, trusted the band of us together not to let anyone break a neck.

Not that we didn’t try. We ran, whooping through the fields, tall golden grasses, thigh-high, tickling my skin, fat grasshoppers flying up as my footfalls disturbed them, their bodies thwacking mine. The sky open and blue. The land vast. Places to run to. A pond to play in, a tree next to it we could climb and stretch out on a branch from which we could watch the water dimple and shiver as dragonflies alighted or fish lurched up to snatch a bug. We could do this all day—no one would stop us.

When we remembered to be hungry and ran back to the farmhouse, the food would be so good. Salty, crunchy fried chicken dredged in buttermilk and cornflake crumbs by my grandmother, meat probably provided by a bird she knew personally. Watermelon, abundant, luscious. Tomatoes, eaten whole, still warm from the garden, the juices bursting out all over our arms, dripping down our chins. We didn’t care. We were kids, caking ourselves with dirt, extracting all the essence of a summer's day.

We ran around like explorers, with visions of discovery in our heads. We found a series of round hay bales, tall, but not so high that we couldn't scramble up them, spaced just so we could leap between them, from bale to bale, if we jumped hard enough. Home after dark, my cousins and I drew maps of the territory we'd surveyed that day and made plans for the next adventure.

Even while I relished my freedom, at the edge of my awareness I knew this farm meant something quite the opposite to my mother and my grandparents. It meant no vacations. The well water without fluoride meant wretched teeth for all the kids; my mom couldn’t afford braces and caps until she was almost thirty. My mom didn’t like to camp after years spent trudging to the outhouse. She didn’t like to perspire, because on the farm, she was always working herself into a sweat. As the eldest daughter it was her job, from a young age, to watch baby brothers and cook for everyone. For many years, she baked a cake from scratch every single day, and it would disappear as fast as she created it, divided by eleven, sometimes with a gouge in it from an impatient brother’s handful.

Had I lived on this farm, there would have been no ease. My mom mentioned how silly they found it when their town cousins visited and considered everything a marvel, wanting to saddle up their grandparents’ old plow horses for a ride while my mother and her sister were deep in the difficult work of cleaning the cream separator or trimming bushels of green beans for canning.

Even while I was a kid, running loose on the farm, my grandmother was still working her factory late shift, a job she held for twenty-five years. Often as we grandkids played the morning away, Grandma was still asleep in her room, resting after midnight work.


Gardening always felt like play to me. I never planned my garden, drawing those dainty pictures on graph paper I’d seen real gardeners make, charting precisely what would grow, without crowding, in each inch of their plot, taking stock of sun and shade. These people completed certification courses and became master gardeners, a title that seemed like hubris. How could anyone consider themselves a master of living things? Nature was boss, not pitiful us. I was superstitious; careful planning felt too close to farming, a provisional profession.

So my garden was wild. I wrote long, meandering novels, and my garden mirrored my inner too-muchness. I always aimed for more: abundant bloom, so many zucchinis I couldn’t eat them all. Every summer, my sunflowers soared ten feet high, attracting bright yellow goldfinches to peck the seeds—and inadvertently plant next year’s crop. I encouraged and trusted volunteer plants. If this little seed decided this was the place, who was I to doubt?

Over the years, I transmitted my garden superstitions to my daughter. Late in May 2020, when we noticed a bud on one of our favorite irises, a showgirl-like stunner called Hi Calypso with golden standards, magenta falls, and an orange beard, we only spoke of it sideways. “Something might be happening over here,” I said, “but we’re not going to talk about it.”

In July, we practiced the same ritual with the first green tomatoes, afraid to praise or exclaim over them and invite any number of calamities. We certainly didn’t count unbloomed buds or unripe tomatoes. Anything might happen. Seven years ago a thousand-year rain drenched our raised bed with floodwaters, so misaligning the nutrients in its soil that no matter how we amended it, no tomato would prosper there.

That summer, as the To-Ma-Toes I’d transferred to various containers and spots in the yard began to take off, producing clusters of green fruits larger than cherries but smaller than plums—ah, so it was some kind of Campari?—I pretended not to see them.

As we stayed home, caring for the plants was my daily salvific ritual. I watered. I sprinkled eggshells and coffee grounds to discourage slugs. I pruned dead stalks. I flicked ravenous Japanese beetles into soapy water. Deaths from COVID-19 continued to mount, making it clear: nature would have its way. We were not in charge.


Every Christmas growing up, my grandmother sent each grandchild a crisp five-dollar bill in a red or green First National Bank of Columbus envelope with a picture of poinsettias or holly and ivy embossed on it in gold. Each year my parents calculated the cost of her sending five dollars to each of the twenty-three grandkids, and they’d mail her a Christmas check for a similar amount. My parents talked late at night about the farm losing money, the debts increasing, how they might not be able to keep it. All it did was siphon money away and force them to work those factory jobs to sustain it. Then Grandpa took out a loan for a center pivot irrigation system that was worth more than his land. This was his ruination.

The Christmas when I was ten, I wrote a thank you note for my grandparents’ five dollars and added the sentence, “I hope you will be able to keep the farm.”

My mom read my note before she mailed it. I’d already gone to bed and she visited me without turning on the light. Gently she told me she’d erased that line in my letter. “Tomorrow we’ll think of something else to write,” she said, “because they’re not going to be able to keep the farm, and we don’t want to make them feel bad.”

I felt like something made of porcelain inside me shattered. I questioned my mom. “Can’t Willie Nelson help?”

“It’s too late.”

“Not even one more summer spent on the farm?”

Not even one.

Gone were the salad days of 1970s farming. Record crop yields, coupled with a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, led to plummeting prices. The need for increased mechanization, pesticides, herbicides, and hybridized seed in order to turn a profit led to massive debt. Family farmers across the nation faced foreclosure. Willie Nelson launched his Farm Aid concerts in 1985, aiming to stave off that outcome. But it was too late for my family. The land my ancestors had homesteaded would be auctioned off, and my grandparents would move to town.

That winter, I became acquainted with the keen pain of loss, as my paternal grandparents were dying at the same time my maternal grandparents’ farm was going under. The loss of the farm felt like being banished from a magical, beloved place at a time when I wasn’t sure any other enchanted places existed. I was ten. I’d never seen the ocean. I’d never ridden on an airplane. I’d never left the country. I had no idea what else there was. All I knew was that this farm, this marvel, this jewel, my favorite place, my freedom place, was crumbling through my fingers like good Nebraska dirt.

By now my aunts and uncles had successful careers, not one of them becoming a farmer, though a couple worked farming-adjacent jobs, one for a tractor company, another as a horticulturist. The others worked in finance, accounting, engineering, sales. Grandpa’s three wishes had been enough, at least, to launch his children into prosperity. They had their own homes, their own gardens.

By the end, my grandparents had amassed massive debt. My uncle Les, his summer at the slaughterhouse long behind him, was now a forensic accountant in Nashville. He helped them file for bankruptcy and devised a share system for the children. Those that could afford to bought one or more shares, according to their means, in the fund that would help sustain Agnes and John, coupled with their factory work and Social Security. Those that didn’t have extra money spent more time visiting their parents. A Florida farm management company bought the farm, and the children purchased Agnes and John a house in Columbus. “My children,” Grandma always said, “were my most successful crop.”

Almost immediately after my grandfather lost his farm, he started to lose his mind. It was probably genetic, but it seemed like he believed he’d suffered a failure so immense he could not integrate it with his view of himself, and his mind fell apart. Grandpa had returned from war, he’d bought his farm, and now it was gone. His brain fog and Parkinson’s worsened, and in 1994, he collapsed from a stroke as he was opening a door, bending the key in the latch. In the nursing home, at times he returned to the farm, his hands baling hay or mending fence while he called out for help from the sons he could remember.

Meanwhile, my grandmother flourished with all those years of burden lifted. No late-night factory shift. No children to care for. No farm to keep afloat. No husband succumbing to dementia to prod into some kind of order. Having lost the farm, she gained a glorious garden. She grew peonies and tomatoes, cucumbers and irises. She showed her iris at local shows and won medals for their impressive blooms. She visited Italy with a church group and traveled all over the United States, attending grandchildren's graduations and baseball games.

As a kid it had struck me sometimes that Grandma Aggie was too crabby with Grandpa, always bossing him around. I didn’t know she was trying to manage his worsening dementia. It turned out she was actually a lot of fun. At a family reunion when my cousin Erron and I were about twenty, we convinced an uncle to buy us a six pack of hard lemonade, to make the polka music and kolaches of a Czech Nebraska get-together more amusing. Grandma saw us drinking and said, “What is that? Hooch? I’ll have one of those.” And so we drank together, with our newly relaxed grandmother, clinking our bottles against hers.

Grandpa died in the winter of 1996. My brother and I were in college at Notre Dame, with thousands of miles of blizzard-wracked prairie between us and the funeral, and Grandma forbid us to come. We were the first two kids in the second generation of the family to attend college, and she didn’t want to lose us in some ditch off an Iowa highway.

She kept traveling and gardening and quilting until 2010 when all that endless work—at the factory, in the fields, with her children, in the garden—caught up to her, and she froze up stiff with arthritis. She’d been stuck, immobile, for a day when her youngest son found her.

She moved to the nursing home, and before Grandma’s house sold, each of us dug some irises from the yard to take home. On Facebook each spring, her descendants share photos of the same irises that now live in Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Denver, Baltimore, Seattle. We became a family dispersed, connected by a lineage of flowers. She died in October 2016. On a gorgeous, blue-sky autumn day, we buried our matriarch. We surrounded her with flowers.

The next spring I waited anxiously for the irises to bloom. I needed them to, especially Grandma’s favorite one, the tall purple-and-white variegated Stepping Out. But a late freeze shocked my entire crop. Nary a bloom appeared in May for the first time I could remember. My garden was telling me, again, don’t you burden me with your needs, your sought-for metaphors. Don’t you try to make me into a farm.


You could examine this story and say they were unlucky. The poverty, the lack of basic amenities, the meat plant work to finance college, and the farm bankruptcy don’t look like privilege. You could say they started from nothing and earned everything themselves. But citizenship isn’t nothing. The land they held for forty years because they came here at the right time, in the right skin, isn’t nothing, even if they lost it, even if no one inherited a dime. The affordable state college education the children obtained through that land and that citizenship isn’t nothing. So what, if during some summers, they ate so many cherries my mom grew permanently sick of them? Each of them, as soon as they could, planted a garden. Most of us grandchildren had our own gardens now. And a garden is always a privilege.

As the pandemic ground on and the experts decided it was indoor air, not contaminated surfaces to worry about, a premium was placed on time spent outside. People who studied access to greenspace pointed out that many of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 in its initial wave were often those that lacked the refuge of gardens and parks.

When I was little, my grandfather was always out on the farm and too tired at the end of the day to play with children. Once they lost the farm, I just remember him sitting in front of the TV, chuckling at sitcoms until my grandmother ordered him to get ready for church or wash his hands for supper. I don’t remember having a single conversation with him. According to my aunt Carol’s foreword in the family cookbook, my grandfather drove her out to the fields once to check the crops and said, “No matter how many years you plant it, when it comes up and looks good, you never get tired of looking at it.” My grandfather was a man I never really knew. But when I read this quote of his, I felt I knew him.

Every spring I marvel, as the tiny peas I planted shoot up and blossom, as the irises unfurl, as the ice plants bloom and shine in the sun. I go around saying wow in my heart. I want to talk to someone about the latest developments in my garden, but I know such talk is boring and repetitive. I just want to say to someone, like Grandpa did every year, that the plants look good, that I’m thankful for them, that I could happily spend my whole life in appreciation of their goodness.

You had to have an optimism that veered on self-delusion to farm. I tried to locate within myself my grandmother’s optimism as we faced down days that looked very much like the death rattle of our nation. In August 2020 we learned the kids wouldn’t have in-person school that fall. Instead of rushing out the door each morning for her first year of high school, my daughter would remain cloistered in her room, like a fairytale princess with a bum assignment, waiting on some tardy prince.

I kept looking for optimism and the place I found it was in my garden. Broad-tailed hummingbirds with green backs and scarlet throats whirred between zinnias and a nectar feeder, their wingtips trilling as they darted and zoomed and chased each other, my Colorado yard a waystation on their return from the mountains to Mexico. Honeybees flitted between pumpkin blossoms and fuzzy purple stalks of Russian sage, their legs so padded with yellow pollen they looked like hockey goalies. Now and then a monarch floated across the yard, moving at a stately pace like a visiting dignitary. My garden bustled with life, noisy with buzzing, chirping, and frogsong from a nearby marsh. I never tired of this. My To-Ma-Toes finally ripened.

My husband and daughter mused about moving to some more temperate climate, where flowers bloomed all year. My husband, a gardener too, longed for zone 10. That's cheating, I thought. Winter’s killing cold lends the whole enterprise gravity. Something to grapple with. If you can make it through, it’s a sign of robust life.

But that year I didn’t know. Everyone expected the lockdown winter would be grim. When I looked out at the fertile tangle of my garden in August, I couldn’t help begging, in my heart: Eden, don’t leave me. You are so beautiful and full of company, and the winter ahead will be lonesome and full of loss. I was ready to strike a bargain with the Woodhouse’s toads that leaped from their hiding spots underneath the gladiolas, to ask them to enchant this place into eternal summer.

I’d wondered, as I raised my children, what would be their first big soul blow, what calamity would knock them off their feet and make them look around and ask, “Where am I?” Because no matter how I loved and protected them, there was no stopping it. It would come like a prairie tornado, one day out of nowhere, the clouds losing their innocence over the vast flatlands, darkening and gathering into a knot.

For me, it was losing my grandparents’ farm, that endless garden playspace. And I think we’ve met what it will be for my children. I could do nothing to help them endure the forced isolation, the loss of their friends, the loss of their identities. All I could do was beckon them out into the garden, and say, let’s plant a seed, or look, I’ve found a baby rabbit, or, over there, the Rose of Sharon is stretching its lavender petals toward the sun. This is good. And this is all there is. The sun on your back, the dirt crumbling through your fingers, and whatever it is that you can make grow, starting from here. I couldn’t make them any promises. I didn’t have any words of comfort. I couldn’t grant wishes. But I could direct their attention to the garden, toward what was unfolding there.

Jenny Shank


Jenny Shank's story collection Mixed Company won the George Garrett Fiction prize and the Colorado Book Award in General Fiction, and her novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award and was a finalist for the Reading the West Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and book reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Toast, Barrelhouse, The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals, Dear McSweeney's, and Love in the Time of Time's Up. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She is a longtime book critic, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and participant on the NBCC John Leonard Prize committee for first best first book. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She writes a monthly newsletter, The Tumbleweed, about art, writing, books, humor, and beauty at jennyshank.substack.com.

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