Plants help form the enduring memory of my great-grandmother, Maggie Bryant. Everybody called her "Big Momma," a quintessentially Southern endearment. She always had something rooting, blooming or growing.

Plants help form the enduring memory of my great-grandmother, Maggie Bryant. Everybody called her "Big Momma," a quintessentially Southern endearment. She always had something rooting, blooming or growing.


She’s been gone a long time. I was still a kid when she passed, but even today, I can’t see flowers, especially zinnias, that I don’t think of her.


Zinnias remind me of Big Momma because of a story her son, my grandfather, tells. Their family were sharecroppers in southeast Arkansas. That life came with all the want, insecurity and oppression that you might imagine. Even so, they were diligent in their saving, thrifty in their consumption and managed to have a pretty good future.


Then as now, cotton was a staple crop. While mechanized farming was on the horizon, the land owners didn’t permit much of it. Plowing, planting and harvesting took the work of many weathered hands.


Despite this draconian condition, Big Momma had a deep aesthetic sensibility. One of my grandfather’s tasks was to plant zinnia seeds at the end of each cotton row. There in the monochrome of endless cotton were flowers of every hue. As the story goes, folks from all around would come to see the zinnias.


Big Momma must have known that life is best when we step outside the expected, when we dare to color outside the lines. While I’m sure she didn’t intend it as such, in some ways the zinnias represented a deeply subversive act. Despite living in a social and economic condition just a step away from outright slavery, she didn’t just plant flowers. She planted hope.


Of course we need not look for the deep symbolic implications of everything. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a flower is just a flower. Which brings me to my next fond remembrance — gourds.


Wrapped carefully in my attic is a dipper gourd that Big Momma gave me when I was a little kid. I don’t know why she planted gourds. I don’t even know that it was her (and not my great-grandfather) who planted them, but I remember her taking me out to the garden, pushing back the leaves and showing me little green bulbs, hanging there, waiting for their turn to become birdhouses, scoops and ad hoc maracas.


I’ve carried the wonder and promise of gourds with me my whole life. Several times I’ve planted them along the back fence. Gourds being what they are, one doesn’t so much plant them as surrender to them. They easily take over whatever ground, structure or slow-walking person that comes near them.


By extension, I also love a cousin of the gourd, pumpkins. I am particularly fond of enormous pumpkins. There’s just something absurdly beautiful about a pumpkin that takes a front-end loader to move.


There’s also something compelling about the people who grow these leviathan squash. "Passion" seems almost too small a word. Mammoth pumpkins don’t happen by accident. Rather, they are the product of a horticultural Manhattan Project. There’s clearly something more at stake than state fair ribbons and bragging rights.


I don’t know that Big Momma and I are much alike, but I see glimpses of her in my grandfather, in my mother and in myself. Nowhere do I feel more connected to them than when I turn a shovel-full of rich black earth, with visions of flowers yet to be.