Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

Pat and Maggie and my lax housekeeping habits have sparked some conversation both here and over on a listserv where I participate, about how the things people leave behind acquire a significance far out of proportion to intrinsic value. It reminded me of a column I wrote for Sage Woman magazine several years ago. And so, in the interest of things left behind, I’ve dug it out and reposted it here. Enjoy!

Finding the Green

I sit crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by half-empty orange boxes. Each carries a series of scribbled labels, some in my mother’s careful hand, some in my father’s impatient scrawl. I look at the labels and see my mother, lips slightly pursed, and my father, huge hand engulfing the Magic Marker, stooping a little because his back hurts too much to bend and he is just too big to do something as fiddly as writing easily.

The labels have little to do with the boxes’ contents. When I got my first apartment Mom sorted through the family Christmas ornaments, put the ones she wanted to keep into new boxes, and repacked the rest into the old age-ambered Sunkist boxes for me, carefully re-labelling  each box’s end, side, and top. She has packed the boxes several times since then, each time inscribing  a new label beside the old.

Mom believes any label—no matter how inaccurate—is better than none. Labels keep her world tidy. I am her polar opposite. If I want to know, really know, what’s in a box I sit down on the floor, pop the lid, and have a good rummage. It drives Mom crazy. That’s what I’m doing today—opening boxes, sorting, discarding, repacking. My goal is a room where I can set up my altar and leave it up. But to get there, I will actually have to get rid of good stuff.

I open another box and think of Mom and labels. Our relationship today is not easy, largely because we do not share a past. There is my past, in which my father molested two of my aunts, my oldest sister and quite probably me, and in which my mother probably knew, and did nothing. The strain of keeping the secrets pushed Mom, already unstable, over the edge into intermittent madness and violence. That is my past.

In Mom’s past Dad may have molested us, but she “just had no idea,” the craziness was “what we should be doing,” and she “had no choice.” The labels she has slapped on my life have as little to do with my past as the labels on these boxes have to do with their contents. Mom’s past is presentable. Mine makes sense. Neither of us feels like trading.

I pull out the boxes in the back of the closet. You know the kind—you pull the lid off as you’re packing the U-haul, shudder, retape, stick the box onto the truck, and forget it until the next time you’re packing the U-haul.

But my heart is set on making room for myself today in a house filled with yesterdays. I unearth mysterious objects: an old autograph album; a canteen; birthday cards; love letters. The saccharine sentiments belonged to the fifteen-year-old girl I was; they are mine no longer. I sigh, slip them almost reverently into the trash, and yank the tape off the last box.

Mom packed this box years ago when I had a new baby and my life broke. In spite of our battered past my parents were there to pack up the pieces and help me build a future for my son.  I toss the lid aside and stare at a small pitcher, a stuffed cow, a tiny diaper. I open the diaper, remember that even this tiny thing was too big for my child in the beginning, and feel the peace of those days when we moved through a haze of autumn sunshine and sleep deprivation, and bright leaves swirled outside while the fragrance of newborn baby filled the house.

I tuck the diaper back into the box and lift the stuffed cow my nephew bought me years ago. The gap in my life where he used to stand suddenly seems very cold and empty. I press the cow to my cheek, swallow, and return it to the box.

And then, under expired Disneyland passes and wrinkled Knott’s Berry Farm bags, I see green. I push the bags aside and there they are: Grandpa’s gardening clothes.

The spring I was fifteen Grandma and Grandpa came to live with us. Every morning and evening Grandpa worked in our garden, his leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from vegetables, sandy soil clinging to his green khaki knees. Grandpa liked company while he worked, but he didn’t want help. My impatient hands seized the morning glory’s leafy tops and snapped them off at the surface.

“Here, Bodie, let me get that,” he said quietly when he saw my pile of leafy weed tops. “Ya have to dig these things out from the bottom, see? If ya leave anything—even a little piece—it just comes back just that much worse. Every single bit a root ya leave laying around turns into a new plant. Betcha didn’t know that, huh?” He deftly separated strengthening roots from strangling roots. Then he worked in a little compost, drizzled a little water, spooned the dirt back around the roots, knuckled the soil gently and drizzled more water. “Ya gotta be gentle or ya bruise the roots,” he said. “Ya just trickle a little water in as ya go, see, so the air doesn’t get to’em.” I never saw him break a root.

I unfold the pants and touch the knees gently, right where Grandpa would have pressed them into the earth, then set them on my lap and shake out the plaid shirt. Grandpa wore it the summer he drove the grader and I drove the water truck, building ranch roads. All that hot summer we met and jounced past each other, miles away from anyone else.

We packed sandwiches and fruit and ate our lunches sitting on the sand beneath the water truck in dripping shade, sage-and-juniper-scented breeze cool against our damp skin, desert flowers papery and fragile around us. We ate sandwiches and drank deep from plastic water jugs and Grandpa told me stories, over and over. By summer’s end I knew them, letter perfect.

Sometimes we talked about religion. Grandpa was against it. “Oh, I believe in God,” he’d say. “I just don’t believe ya gotta go ta church ta know’im. Every time I go, there they are with their hands out. And all those rules…” he shook his head. “Seems to me if you just treat people decent…ya know?”

“I hear ya, Grandpa,” I said, and I did, not that it did me any good. My own religion would be considerably more complex for some time to come. Grandpa treated me like the plants in his garden—he gently loosened things up, eased the strangling restrictions, saw to it that I got what I needed to develop a better root system, and eventually, to bloom.

Grandpa did something else that summer: He made me a song. He sang it standing in the steaming road, under the truck, and in the pickup on the way home when work was done. “You are my pride and joy/You are my water truck,” he rumbled, his voice flat and soft. In the beginning he sang, “You are my pride and joy/you are my water boy,” but then he changed it.

I was not a boy; I was a girl. Grandpa, who understood the true nature of gardens, churches, and girls, recognized that. “Truck” rhymed better than “girl”, sort of, so “truck” it was. The song became a password between us, a key to the little oasis of peace, love, and safety he carved out for me that summer.

Sitting in my hallway, his shirt in my hands, I can see us there yet, a worn man in green khaki pants and plaid shirt, a tall girl in bib overalls, sunbleached hair pulled into tight French braids, eating sandwiches and drinking from old bleach jugs while the truck drips a gentle, cooling rain around us. We are smiling.

I lay the shirt aside and take up the undershirt, painted with a brilliant blue and red parrot. “I picked the shirt you painted for him,” Mom told me when she gave me the clothes. “He loved the things you painted.” This was true; at a time when everyone in my family, including me, saw my art as a cute trick, Grandpa saw more.

“Get in the car, Bodie, I’m gonna buy you some paints,” he said soon after he and Grandma arrived.

“You don’t have to, Grandpa,” I said, though I wanted paints more than anything. “Paints cost a lot.”

“I have enough,” Grandpa said. We drove to the hobby shop. Grandpa said, “Pick what you need.”

I chose carefully: the tiniest tubes of paint, the smallest bottle of linseed oil, the cheapest brushes, an 8 x 10 pad of canvas. “I think this is it, Grandpa,” I said.

“Ya wanna paint big pictures, don’t’cha?” He reached for the 24 x 36 canvases.

“Thanks, Grandpa,” I said, took my small pad out of the basket and bent to replace it.

“Hold onto that,” Grandpa said.

“But I don’t need two,” I protested.

“Ya want it, don’t’cha?”

“Yes, but—”

Grandpa headed for the paint aisle. “You’re gonna need more paint than that, aren’t’cha?” he said over his shoulder. “Them little tubes ain’t gonna cover much territory.”


“Here, get this one.” He handed me the professional-grade paint collection. The paint tubes seemed huge.

“But Grandpa, that costs—”

“Never mind that.”

I gave Grandpa my first painting. When I got the idea of painting shirts Mom said, “You better just paint on old ones.” And various family members donated shirts—old, limp, studded with tiny holes. Grandpa gave me two shirts—new ones. I painted a parrot on one, and a peacock on the other.

When Mom gave me Grandpa’s gardening clothes I thanked her, folded them carefully, put them back into the bag, and set them on my closet shelf.

A year later I learned that my parents had concealed a web of molestation and abuse involving most of my family. Learning our true history gave new and frightening nuances to events I had simply accepted as things that happened to me because I was “bad.” I started asking questions. Dad said I had a “weak grip on reality.”

It was true. People I loved and trusted had lied about the very basis of our life. I asked more questions. Mom and Dad contradicted themselves and each other, when they answered at all. “Truth” and “reality” became slippery concepts, moving points. Who were my parents? Who was I?

I clung to the memory of Grandpa. Surely Grandpa hadn’t lied? One day I realized that I could no longer remember his face. I searched frantically for the clothes, but they were gone.

And now, twelve years and three moves later, I hold them in my hands again.  I stand and walk down the hall to the living room, carrying them flat on my palms like vestments.

“Look, Patrick,” I say. I begin to cry.

“Are you okay, Mom?” he asks.

“Yes, honey, I’m fine.” I swallow, laugh, slap tears from my cheeks, and show him the clothes that were as much a part of Grandpa as his leathery, just-shaved cheeks, the smell of Copenhagen, and Digger O’Dell, his garden trowel.

I lay the clothes on the sofa and go back to finish the last box. The Knott’s Berry Farm bags lie in the bottom. I pick them up, already reaching for the trash bag. But there’s something inside. I upend the heavier bag. Four small gray stones spill into my hand. Each holds a painted animal. I cannot imagine myself buying these things—and yet I must have, because here they are. I rather like the duck and the quail, but I can’t even identify the other two animals. On looks like a mound of sticks, the other like a deer with balloons tied to its antlers. What right-thinking deer would do a thing like that?

I drop them into Patrick’s toy box and shake open the last bag. A small book falls out. I have just dropped Northwest Native American spirit rocks into my son’s toy box, spirit rocks I must have chosen on some long-ago day, for reasons I can neither remember nor understand.

I dig through toys, retrieve the stones, lay them out beside me, and look up their meanings: “Loon…solitude, singing; Moose…survival, headstrong (and festive, with those balloons); Porcupine…innocence; Quail…sacred spiral.”

I think of my broken family relationships and my largely solitary life as a writer, of the strength that allowed me to survive with my soul intact, of the innocence that was Grandpa’s gift to me, of the sacred path I have just begun to travel, and which requires that I examine my life, keep the precious, jettison the trash, and make room for the new. The stones are a message from myself, sent at a time when even I did not understand their meaning.

I gather them up in both hands, and place them carefully within the chest where I keep my sacred things. One day soon I will haul out the last bag of trash and donate the last box to Goodwill. I will cleanse and sanctify the room. I will position the chest, shake out the altar cloth, and dress the candles. But before I set them on the altar, I will open the chest, and I look again at the things I have placed within it: Grandpa’s gardening clothes, and painted stones, gifts from my past to my future.

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Actually, it’s February, and it snowed the last two days, and then it thawed and froze and snowed again. It’s not even starting-plants-in-the-garage time yet. The House Leroy pointed this out to me at 5:30 this morning, as I was prying my eyes open and simultaneously decrying the fact that last night I had filled a shopping cart full of seeds on Amazon at prices that hardly seemed credible, only to learn that while I might only be paying $32 for these seeds, I was going to be paying $28 in shipping. I was also mourning that even at those shipping rates, I couldn’t be sure that the organic, non-hybrid, open-pollinated, heirloom tomatoes I had selected would actually taste good in sandwiches–or grow big enough to make them.

Leroy’s concerns were more immediate. “Even if I had the seeds and started them, they would have frozen in the garage,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to to actually plant them now,” I said, blearily watching my hazelnut creamer swirl into my coffee.

“But you’re supposed to,” Leroy said. “Now’s the time. We should be planting them now.”

“But you just said they’d freeze.”

“Now’s the time to start them,” he said, and sipped his own coffee (plain creamer).

“But it’s the waning moon.”

“Huh?” asked Leroy.

“Everything that produces above the ground should be planted during the waxing moon, and everything but the onions…”

“We don’t even know if we’re going to plant onions.”

“Yes, I’d like to. To repel ants.”

“You’re thinking onions. By the house. Onions are…aromatic,” he suggested delicately. The word sat oddly on his tongue. Leroy is many things. Delicate is not among them. “Aromatic. By the house,” he stressed.

“Yes,” I said, fresh from having browsed the seed sites. “Aromatic plants repel ants. We have lots of ants.”

‘You want to repel aunts?” he asked, waggling his runaway eyebrows so I’d get the joke.

“I’ll have to see what plants do that,” I said straight-faced. “We have lots of them.”

“Yes, we do. But we can’t find the hills. We only see them when they have wars.”

I thought about my many aunts waging war in my flowerbeds, and on the front lawn. It wasn’t as bizarre an image as I might have wished. “Well, I still like aromatic plants by the house, to sort of keep them away. Onions. Or garlic. Or maybe mint, or bee balm.”

“By the porch. Bee balm.”

“Yes. I think so.”

“You plant bee balm by the porch and you and Patrick’ll never leave the house. You run inside now every time you see a bee. I’ll be out there enjoying the porch all by myself.”

“Maybe not bee balm,” I reflected. “But maybe spicy hot thyme, basil, rosemary. The site says eggshells–”

“You should draw a map of your property, and mark where everything is, and where you want everything, so we can plan it,” he said, and watched me closely so he wouldn’t miss the second when my head exploded. It was just too early for a conversation like that. I finished my coffee and went back to bed, only to dream that I had married a treasure-hunter/terrorist, and he held all doors open for me to pass through first not because he was a gentleman but because it was his little way of making sure that none of his enemies were in the room. Speaking of which: rooms in the stony, dusty underground caverns we frequented were lit by aiming flowing hoses of raw petroleum products at sparking wires. And I was baby-sitting a teenager who didn’t want to go to school and kept running away and hiding in clefts in the rocks.

When I gratefully arose for the second time this morning Leroy was lying in wait. “You should draw a map of your property, and mark where everything is, and where you want everything, so we can plan it,” he said again.

This was something of a reversal. When we talked about gardening last week I began to discuss my plans: “I’d like to put in raised beds here and fill them with tomatoes and herbs and I’d like to plant mint and lemon balm here and maybe hang some pots here…we’d need another pergola…”

“I will be planting a few tomato plants,” Leroy said. “That’s me, gardening. A few tomato plants. Maybe some zucchini and onions. Everything else is on you.”

Which, being interpreted, meant that we will be having a few tomato plants, maybe some zucchini, and onions, since while I shine at waving my hands around and drawing graceful word pictures of my dreams, Leroy is the one who actually does the weeding, watering, and tending that makes them come true.

So here he was, this morning, actually inviting me to draw a map and plan out where I want everything to go.

And I find myself strangely resistant to the idea. Now I just want a few nice tomato plants, some zucchini, some onions…and maybe some lemon balm, lemon bee balm, some mint, some rosemary, some delphiniums, some more foxgloves and some double and triple peaches and cream hollyhocks to augment the seeds we saved from last year… and snapdragons, more snapdragons…

So we’re going seed shopping today. But I’ll be darned if I’m going to plan anything. We’ll start the tomato seeds in the garage when frost danger is past, and then we’ll transplant them out by the fence. I’ll plant all the other seeds the way I always do: I’ll walk around sometime in May, seed packets in my hands. “Here’s a bare patch,” I’ll say, and then I’ll tear a packet of seeds open (short if it’s toward the front of the flower bed, medium if it’s in the middle, tall if it’s in back by the fence) and I’ll pour the seeds out, kick a little dirt over them, and walk on bathed in a warm gardening glow.

But all that’s for the future. For today, all I have to do is buy seeds. Because it’s garden thyme!

Note: no vegetables featured in this post except for the nice tomato and maybe some onions will set foot in our garden. They are included for decorative purposes only. Don’t expect to see them anywhere around if you come to my house.

And by the way, the veggie art grew out of copyright free drawings which I painted and folded, spindled and mutilated. The header and the flowers out of which it is fashioned is my own art. Do not even think of stealing it, or I’ll come plant Aromatic Plants under all your windows, and tell my soldier aunts where you live.

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My Grandpa was a world champion gardener, and each night as twilight fell he’d go out and pull weeds. I liked to go out and sit between the rows and watch his hands, and while I watched, he told me stories. He told me some stories just the once; others he told me over and over, until I could repeat them myself, in his words. Even today, I can close my eyes and see him kneeling in the garden, and hear his soft, husky voice with its faint traces of his childhood German.

Listening to Grandpa taught me to listen to cadences, note characteristic turns of phrase, and play with words. In listening to his stories, I learned to see my own life as a story–or, rather, a play. Here’s a little snippet from when I was about ten. Enjoy.


SETTING: It is early evening. Bill kneels in the garden, digging weeds out carefully, tucking them into a gunny sack, then spooning dirt around the roots, trickling in water, adding a little fertilizer. Bodie kneels facing him. Beside her is a waving pile of leafy green weed tops.

BILL (looking at the pile of weed tops): Here, Bodie, let me get that. You have ta dig these things out from the bottom, see? If you leave anything—even a little piece like this (shows her a half-inch root segment)—it comes back just that much worse. Every single bit of root you leave laying around turns into a new plant. Bet you didn’t know that, huh.

BODIE: Huh uh…What’cha doin’ now?

BILL: I’m checkin’ around the roots here, just makin’ sure I’ve got all the weed roots out a the plant roots. If ya don’t, those weed roots’ll just strangle the plant right where she stands. Then, (digging carefully) when you’ve got the weed roots all out ya loosen up the dirt like this, an’ pour in a little fertilizer, an’ a little water, an’ then ya tamp the dirt down…just knuckle it in real easy, like this. Ya gotta be careful a the roots, see.

BODIE (watching): Can I help?

BILL: Why don’t’cha carry these weeds over an’ dump’em for Honey Dew and Joe? They eat’em, don’t they?

BODIE: Only if I hold’em in my hand. They’ll eat anything we hold in our hands. Watch this.

(She jumps up, hops over the garden rows, leans down, and pulls a big onion. Bill leans back on his heels and rests his hands on his thighs, trowel still held in one hand. Bodie hops down another few rows and pulls up a fistful of something else.

BILL: What’cha got there?

BODIE: Onions an’ horseradishes.

BILL: Horses don’t eat that stuff.

BODIE: Honey Dew does.

BILL: This I gotta see.

Bill stands and follows Bodie over to the fence, carrying the sack of weeds with him. Bodie leans down and slides between the strands of barbed wire, holding her onion and horseradishes close to her chest.

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew. Here girl. (A white Welsh pony lifts her head, then comes running up to Bodie.) Here you go, girl. (Bodie holds the onion out on the flat of her hand. Honey Dew takes a big bite, and then another, then chews and swallows, head bobbing, tears streaming down her beautiful white face.)

BODIE: Ya like that, girl?  Here, try this. (She holds out a horseradish. Honey Dew bites into it, chews it up, and swallows it, tearing up even more fiercely. Bodie rub the pony’s nose, then her neck.) What a good girl! (Honey Dew drops her head onto Bodie’s shoulder and sighs.)

BILL (dumping the weeds over the fence): Well, I’ll be…. Here you go, girl. These gotta taste better’n onions and horseradishes.

BODIE: She won’t eat’em.

(Honey Dew walks over to the weeds, sniffs them, and walks away. Bodie leans down and picks up a handful.)

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew, here girl.

(Honey Dew turns, ears up, and hurries back to Bodie.  Bodie holds the weeds out. Honey Dew lips them up and eats them with every evidence of enjoyment.)

BILL: (chuckling) Well I’ll be darned. (He watches Bodie pet the pony, then turns and looks over the yard at the children playing, then down across the river. Then he goes back to the row he has been weeding, sinks to his knees, groaning a bit, and goes back to weeding. After a while Bodie runs up to the house, then comes back with a halter.

BILL (sitting up straight to watch her again): Whatcha doin’?

BODIE: Gettin’ Honey Dew. Marie wants to give her a bath and take her in the house again.

(She clips the rope on Honey Dew’s halter and leads her out of the pasture, closing the gate behind her.

BILL: Why you wanna take’er in the house?

BODIE: I don’t. (She leads Honey Dew away)

Bill shakes his head, chuckles, and goes back to weeding.

PAM: (shouting) Marie, don’t bath’er. It’s too late. She’ll catch cold.

MARIE: (shouting back) I can’t take’er in dirty. (She turns the hose on.)

PAM: Marie, don’t. She’ll get sick!

MARIE: No she won’t. It’s warm out.

PAM: But it’ll get cold before she’s dry.

MARIE: Grandpa wants to see.

(Bill weeds on, oblivious. Bodie comes back into the garden and drops to her knees by Bill.)

BILL: What’s all the shouting?

BODIE: Marie wants to wash Honey Dew and Pam won’t let’er.

BILL: Awful late to be washin’ a horse tonight, ain’t it?

BODIE: (reasonably) She can’t take’er inside dirty.

BILL: Why’d she want to do that, anyway?

BODIE: So you can see.

BILL:  She’d do that for me?

BODIE: Well sure. We all would.

BILL (looking at her, half-smiling and shaking his head): Huh. (He goes back to digging.)

BODIE: Why you goin’ so slow, Grandpa?

BILL: Cause I gotta be careful. I get in a hurry, I’ll hurt the roots.

BODIE: Daddy says we have to hurry up a lot.

BILL: Sometimes you go too fast you can get hurt.

BODIE: (sadly) Uh huh.  Do girls have roots?

BILL: (chuckling) I don’t know. I suppose they might.

BODIE: I love you, Grandpa.

BILL: Huh?

BODIE (shouting): I love you.

BILL (quietly): I love you, too.

BODIE: Can I give you a kiss?

BILL: (turning his head and tapping his cheek) Plant one right there.

Bodie leans forward and kisses his cheek gently, then jumps up and runs away. Bill looks after her, then shakes his head, smiles, and goes back to weeding as the sky darkens into night.

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