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Senior Correspondent

"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt." — Margaret Atwood

This week marks the 50th anniversary of my grandfather's passing. To us, he was the rock star of all grandpas. We just knew we had hit the grandpa jackpot.

Because our glamorous grandmother was in perpetual denial about her age, her grandchildren were forbidden to call her Grandma. She preferred Gaga. Yep, she was the real deal the original Lady Gaga. Our grandfather was known to pick up his banjo and lead us in song, so we called him Banjo.

Banjo supervised a whole district of field agents for the Missouri Department of Conservation. No one ever told us so, but we were pretty sure he was a secret agent. We became intoxicated with power just imagining all the bad guys he must have put behind bars. Upon occasion, one of us would get to ride along with him. No one recalled any bad-guy encounters, but we did meet a bunch of good ol' farm boys.  

Banjo excelled at creating adventures through projects he would create for our entertainment and his. Decades later, I realized that each Banjo project was carefully designed and executed to teach us a useful skill.

He was a grand teacher  he made learning life lessons a great adventure. We got to learn the value of work, the joy of accomplishing something, and how to earn money, which he advised us to place in a special savings account he helped each one of us open.

Banjo had a way of making a huge production out of most anything. He'd start by slowly and deliberately stoking up his pipe, and the suspense would build. He would lay the groundwork, painting a grand vision for the project at hand. As he slowly and deliberately shared the necessary information, we would be bursting with anticipation, feeling so important.

The visioning stage was followed by a lengthy planning process and at least one trip to the store to purchase the required items on our checklist not already in inventory. Eventually we would go to work, often being turned loose and trusted to achieve the shared vision.  

Banjo's annual garden met all the criteria for a huge production. It required planning, planting, tending and harvesting. He knew just how to pull each one of us kids into the process and make us proud to participate. It went without saying that each year, Banjo's garden would be grander and more glorious than the year before, surely making his neighbors take notice.

In the spring of 1965, shortly after the greatest Gladden garden ever had been planted, Banjo died very suddenly from a heart attack. We were devastated. That year, Banjo's garden became my dad's garden. Dad, assisted by my brothers and their children, would go on to expand that garden for decades. Dad would begin dreaming and scheming about the next greatest Gladden garden just after Christmas each year.

Generations later, Gladden gardens continue to be dreamed and schemed about, planted, tended, harvested and bragged about. And now, Banjo's great-great-granddaughters, barely toddling, are taking their turn in family lore, as they learn gardening 101 from their dad.

I can see Banjo slowly puffing on his pipe and nodding his approval, as he looks over all the little Gladden gardeners coming on.

"A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness. It teaches industry and thrift. Above all, it teaches entire trust."  Gertrude Jekyll

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