in my humble opinion

How does your garden grow?

By JONATHAN CHARLES FOX
Posted 5/26/21

The above title refers to an old nursery rhyme, which reads like this:

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

and pretty maids …

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in my humble opinion

How does your garden grow?

Posted

The above title refers to an old nursery rhyme, which reads like this:

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

and pretty maids all in a row”

I’m not much of a gardener, but I admire those who are. I like flowers, and although I don’t plant them, I’ve been known to buy them, pot them and, on occasion, keep them alive for a period of time. While I may not have a “green thumb,” I decided that it’s possible to teach an old dog like myself a new trick, so I grabbed my much younger dog, tossed her in the truck and off we went to this year’s annual (pun intended) Livingston Manor Flower Day over the weekend, hoping to get some tips from pros and amateur gardeners alike, who all know far more about gardening than I.

Held in support of the Livingston Manor Renaissance Group and bolstered by local businesses hosting pop-up stalls and booths, the event sounded appealing, promising potted plants and flowers for sale. Storefronts and restaurants all through town opened their doors to welcome residents and visitors strolling down Main Street under beautiful blue skies.

As the nursery rhyme niggled at my poor brain, I paused to snap photos, asking kids and adults if they knew what a “cockle shell” was or why poor Mary was so darned contrary. “You really don’t know what it means?” one of the shopkeepers asked, apparently stunned that I was unaware of the hidden subtext behind something first published in 1744. “Really,” I responded. “I mean we sang it as a round when we were kids, but no, I don’t. And what’s with the ‘pretty maids’ all in a row? Who the heck are they?”

“Use the Google”, she shot back alluding to my never-ending advice doled out in this column on a frequent, somewhat annoying basis. And so I did. According to the almighty Wikipedia, “The Mary that is portrayed in this nursery rhyme is none other than Mary Tudor, also known in historical infamy as ‘Bloody Mary.’ Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. It seems that, in an attempt to break away from the Church of England, she tried to revert back to the Catholic Church as soon as she became Queen. It was said that she persecuted and murdered many Protestants. Her reign of terror became widely known over the course of history, thus giving her that well-deserved title of ‘Bloody Mary.’”

“Hmm,” I murmured to the dog. “And here I thought that Bloody Mary was a character in the Rodger and Hammerstein musical ‘South Pacific.’” I continued to research and learned that there are several interpretations of the poem’s meaning. “Some say that the silver bells represented Catholic Cathedral bells, the cockle shells stood for the pilgrimage to Spain and the pretty maids in a row stood for a row of nuns.” 

Others claim the meaning was about mean ole’ Mary torturing her victims, “silver bells and cockle shells stood for thumb screws and other (not for polite
company) torture devices” and that the pretty maids in a row stood for “the people lining up to be executed by the guillotine.” Oh my. The latter is widely believed to be the real interpretation, and the Google agrees. “How does your garden grow?” is said to refer to the cemetery, seeing that the more deaths, the more the cemetery “garden” would grow. Ouch.

I steered Dharma towards kids selling baked goods to support the Livingston Manor High School Class of 2023 and purchased an entire red velvet cake, even though I (don’t judge!) live alone. I ran into old friends, made some new ones and popped into a few stores while my dog schmoozed with passersby. I told anyone who would listen that I had planted morning glory seeds and that some had even begun to sprout.

“They don’t care, dude,” my dog seemed to say, while eyeing the cake and whimpering. I absentmindedly handed her a boney while wondering what other nursery rhymes had dark, disturbing meanings, knowing full well that another click on the Google was in my future. How does your garden grow?

Fun Fact: A round, in music, is a polyphonic vocal composition in which three or four voices follow each other around in a perpetual canon at the unison or octave.

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