The Back Garden

The Back Garden by Adolf von Menzel (1850-1860)

Granny would stand before the kitchen window and admire her back garden. Sweet corn. White-half runner stringed beans. Cabbage. And bushels of tomatoes she sliced for the table and canned for winter stews.  
A fence protected her garden. Although generous with her harvest, she didn’t appreciate local drunks and boys who’d smash her ripe melons for sport.
Of German descent, Ollie Smith’s short and stout figure vanished when she walked between her rows of corn, vined with pole beans. Awestruck, I never stepped beyond her fence.
Childhood wonder nestled in an Appalachian valley.

This is what I sense, what I remember, when I stand before The Back Garden displayed in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Painted by Adolf von Menzel (1815-1905), a German Realist artist, he, too, stood short and stout.
Menzel's biographers say he may have viewed his back garden from his bedroom window. His painting, The Artist’s Bedroom (1847) supports that probability.
Artists usually paint what they hold dear and desire to immortalize. Many of Menzel’s paintings depict historic and courtly events in elaborate detail. Yet, Emilie Menzel Asleep (1848) is a singular, intimate object.  

Although Menzel didn’t include corn, beans, and tomatoes in his humble vegetable plot, true to German cuisine, he grew cabbage.
I’m fond of Menzel’s gatepost and stick fence, elements in the composition that guarded his garden.
What I cherish most about The Back Garden is Menzel’s perspective inside the fence amongst the cabbages and lettuces. He welcomes me to stroll the weedy paths with him. He nods to the red roses climbing the fence and the shed where he stows his hoe.

To satisfy Granny’s hunger for flowers and color, she repotted overwintered red geraniums and set them on her back porch. There, she settled in the shade and strung beans.
With no radio reception in the mountains, neighbors kept her company. “Mrs. Smith, your garden sure looks purdy this summer,” they’d say.
Granny held her labor and pleasure in perfect harmony. One was the other.
Beside the steps of her postage-stamp front yard, my grandmother tended a rose bush that grew taller and wider than her and bloomed pink roses the summer long.
At nightfall, when she called my sisters and me in from play, I’d find my sentinel high on the front porch where she’d sit and swing above the roses.
My mother planted a back garden when she returned to Kentucky and built a house. My daughters observed their Nana stand by her kitchen sink and admire apple trees and sweet corn.
Thus my childhood and adult homecomings to my grandmother and mother guided me to the earth.
Dear Reader, for thirty years I’ve stood by my kitchen window and observed the seasons turn. I’m learning to hold my labor and pleasure as one.
This is what I remember when I consider Adolf von Menzel’s The Back Garden­—another window to see Granny’s patch of Eden.
To marvel how summer after summer, tall rows of corn swallowed my grandmother whole.

Author’s note: Adolf von Menzel’s The Back Garden, is presently in storage at the Detroit Institute of Arts and not available for viewing.