Grandmas (Especially Teachers) Know Best

by guest blogger Alyssa McDougle

When I was a child, I sometimes spent the weekend with my grandma in her small apartment. Those visits were exciting to me, not only because of the prospect of being “spoiled,” but because they were always filled with simple, special moments—moments of admiring her Delft porcelain plates, inhaling the smell of bacon cooking, hearing her detailed stories of my mom’s childhood, and reading her recommended books.

My grandma had once been a teacher, and as a strong-willed woman unafraid to speak her mind, her command of the classroom might have sometimes intimidated students. But her intention was always to make sure children were getting the best education possible, and this was exactly what she meant for me as well, especially when it came to literature. I had always loved to read, but when I stayed with my grandma, she was able to steer me toward books she knew I might not otherwise have read.

I was seven when she first pushed the old copy of The Secret Garden into my hands. I flipped through the pages excitedly, bypassing the text to look at the art in detail, at its intricate drawings of a country so far away. But my grandma knew exactly how to get me interested in the story. As I looked through the pictures, she talked about the beautiful gardens in my hometown, and the vegetable garden my dad and I had made in my backyard. She pointed to a few pictures of Mary in the garden, and then said things like,“That’s just like you!” At one point she brought out one of her old biscuit tins, and told me these kinds of tins would have held treats for Mary during her time. These insights and sensory moments helped me start to understand what kind of world Mary may have lived in, and made me curious to see what her story had to offer. With gentle but firm insistence, my grandma encouraged me to keep reading, and opened me up to Burnett’s beautiful story.

THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett - 1911 cover - LitWits Workshops

At first, Mary’s life felt very different from mine, and I could not relate to this rude and entitled English child from the turn of the century. Still, because of my grandmother’s insistence and her  examples things Mary and I had in common, I read on. As I sat on my on my grandma’s rough carpet,I began to feel connected to Mary. When she fell in love with the Yorkshire moor and the people who resided there, I did too. When she found the key to the secret garden, my heart beat with excitement. But what struck me the most was the way she changed as she discovered and tended to the garden. Her nature, her love of the people and land, and her understanding of the world all changed as she grew. During one of her moments of realization, she states,

“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden—in all the places.”

Moments like this, when Mary’s ability to love is nurtured by nature, stayed with me long after that special weekend of reading her story on my grandma’s floor. I began to note that same “pushing and drawing in my chest” when I went in nature. When I looked up at the stars with people I cared about, I understood the warmth and calm I felt as that “Magic” that Mary had defined. She–and my grandma–helped show me that the world can be filled with hidden beauty and goodness.


The lessons stayed as I grew, but the story itself got shelved at the back of my mind, even when I moved to London in my early twenties. The hustle and bustle of that great city, and my schoolwork, new friendships, and cultural explorations, left me hardly any time to myself. Still, every few weekends I would go out to the country, or to areas of nature within the city. My friends would tease me about my disappearances, and I’d always laugh along with them, not sure myself why I needed to go to those places. In the very country Burnett had once brought to life for me, I had forgotten “the Magic” and how to describe that “drawing in” feeling in my chest.

It wasn’t until recently, as my mom was helping my grandma move from that memorable apartment, and was going through her collection of books, that I thought back on The Secret Garden and Mary’s words. I suddenly understood why I had needed to seek out nature in England, and why a hike in the woods will always clear my head. Nature brings me back down to earth, and reminds me of the magic in the world. It connects me to my family and friends, and to little loving moments of the past, like that of reading a book with my grandma on her scratchy carpet.

Thank you, Grandma, for encouraging me to read The Secret Garden, and for helping me understand its lifelong lessons.

Betty Ann Hamilton passed away on October 25, 2019.

by guest blogger Alyssa McDougle

Alyssa McDougle

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