Ever since I can remember, Mom had a garden. There are many foggy memories of her crouched down in the middle of the big square patch outside the back door, her ever-present, thin gold necklace sparkling against deep olive skin as she moved from this plant to the other, tugging at weeds and tamping down roots. Underneath the carport it seems there was always vegetation in different stages of being transplanted or re-potted and various tools of the trade leaning against the wall with mysterious elixirs and organic caterpillar deterrents standing neatly on the ground. I was always allowed my own little plot of dirt somewhere, maybe at the foot of the real garden, the proximity of which was intimidating and fascinating. Sometimes, I was restricted to the little circle of dirt beneath the laundry room window where I was given absolute freedom to choose any combination of flowers I wanted. I am certain my choices were fairly appalling and, in the end, poorly tended. I never had much patience for the garden, and I never understood how she did.
The vegetable garden I remember from childhood is still exactly where it always was. On the western edge still stands the gnarled row of grapes Dad planted when they first moved in. I’m pretty sure he had plans to make wine but each year, while the grapes have always been fruitful, it’s the birds who’ve reaped the benefits of that crop. But everything else that’s grown there, for more than 30 years, the rest of us have eaten. In the summer we lived off the abundance (and varied combinations) of tomatoes and basil. I still adhere exactly to Mom’s recipe for pesto and the decadent brie, tomato, and basil pasta that convinced Jer not all meals must include meat. Since I moved out, Mom’s gardens have expanded far beyond the square I remember from childhood. Most of the large yard around the house has become flowers and plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. And no matter what is going on in Life – Mom has always made ample time, almost every day, to tend her gardens. The amount of care and time spent with her hands in the dirt – it used to baffle me (now it just makes me jealous). We’ve never spoken about what exactly motivates her to get outside each day and take care of the sprawling gardens. We don’t really have to. I think I know.
My gardens will never look like Mom’s. Not just because they will never sit within the lawn of an old, historic neighborhood, spreading out before a Victorian home. They’ll never look like hers because I will never have her patience and determination. I came to terms with this long ago when it was evident I would always have trouble completely finishing any task I started – including gardening. As I’ve mentioned many times, if anything I plant manages to squeeze out something edible, then I pat myself on the back and chalk the rest up to the magic of photosynthesis. Lately, however, I’m remembering that the reward of gardens goes much deeper than their production value. There’s meditation in bending over into dirt so the sun makes you sweat – even on a cool day.
Many years ago in college, I had one of your typical boy-dumps-girl-girl-gets-sad kind of episodes in which I felt incredibly sorry for myself, watched too much TV, ate twinkies, and swore off boys forever. This boy (whose name rhymes with Shmeremy) was a particularly tough one to get over. I sat and festered during the summer break, and one day Mom showed up at my door. She had had enough of that, thank you very much. She brought me home, dragged me out of the car, plunked me down in the garden, and tossed a pair of gloves at me. Pointing at the ground she said, “Weed.” It’s probable that I started to whine, maybe to cry. “WEED.” She turned around and walked inside.
So I started to half-heartedly tug at the weeds crowding around the base of her blackberries. Ripping them out from the dirt, making clean spaces there so the plants could grow – hey – it felt pretty good. I spent the afternoon in the garden. I felt better.
I’ll never have my mother’s garden, but I will always keep a garden. I will never tend plants that grow twice their average size or vegetables greener and brighter than what’s on the seed package, as she always has. My garden is more than what it produces; it’s a tonic for what ails me. There’s some therapy there in the dirt, out in the weeds, pulling the un-wanteds so the intentional plantings can turn into what they’re supposed to be. It’s good to get dirty every once in a while - then to wash your hands clean.