Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Of Sewing and Mending

"When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden."-- Minnie Aumonier

My father died in May. It was a shock. He was here, on the earth, feeding his horses, having dinner at home, texting with me about his next visit to Colorado… And then he was gone. He was 62. Joan Didion said, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

There are layers and layers to a sudden shock of sadness. For weeks I felt as if I were alone, lying on the floor of a deep underground, bomb shelter, my face pressed to the cool ground. Occasionally, my children would visit me there with all their light and beauty. Their giggles reverberated against the walls in me. It was very disorienting.

This is the story of finding myself in the sun, once more. This is that layer.


It is therapeutic to put your hands in the earth, to get dirt under your fingernails. There is a transaction that happens between gardener and soil. Molly Ringwald noted the importance in an essay for the August 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living. She gardened through a miscarriage in a rooftop garden in New York. She says, " I found almost nothing to fill the emptiness...It was a very solitary sadness. To my surprise, the one thing that did make me feel a little better was venturing up to the roof alone and putting my hands in the soil." 

We were starting the garden before my Dad’s heart stopped. We bought all the plants just the day before. Then I left for 2 weeks. And Jeff and the kids followed me for a week. The plants sat in their plastic containers in cardboard trays, mostly shaded from the sun. Jeff’s mom came over each day and watered them. She kept them alive.

But they were sad, spindly little plants when we got home. And my heart was splintered from the blunt force trauma of watching my Dad die.

I stood over those disintegrating cardboard trays and sprinkled the plants with water, dumbstruck at the way things trundled on and how my life still expected me to show up.

These spindly stalks needed me. They were dying. And I resented them for it. I just wanted to walk away from the garden this year. I could barely remember how to slap a sandwich together for my kids, much less nurture these tender squash and tomato plants. The inside of me had turned to chalk and it crumbled in a cloud of dust periodically through the day like an avalanche of snow in the mountains, only much less beautiful but equally alarming. Each morning, I watered and contemplated tipping the trays into the trashcan and being done with the whole thing. I wouldn’t have to stand by and watch these plants die. I had some control over this situation. But each day I turned off the water hose and went back inside like The Dread Pirate Roberts: “Sleep well, Wesley. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

And then Jeff started rebuilding the garden structure. Our old garden was made with 2x4s and it was decaying and falling into the yard. It was an item from our to-do list from the previous year which may as well have been a previous geologic age. I watched him stack and cut the timbers, piecing them together, measuring, finding just the right fit, sweat pouring between his shoulder blades. He is so strong and able-bodied. I was grateful and also newly struck by my Dad’s death. I crumbled again and spent much of the next two days inside where I was safe from bulging muscles and strong, confident hearts.

After the structure was finished, Jeff ordered the garden soil to be delivered. He happened to be away when the dump truck driver rang the doorbell. I called Jeff on his cell phone. He said to have the driver dump the load in front of the house on the street. I did. And the driver did. And the dirt piled into a 1/10 scale model of Longs Peak. It was a monumental task filling the empty box with the soil. I grabbed my gardening gloves and a shovel. And soon enough, our children and Jeff and I were all working on it. I found it required little from me to shovel the small piles Jeff made with the wheel barrow. It was refreshing to be a part of things that were leveling out. The baby was filthy. But happy. The filthiest and happiest he’d ever been. My insides crumbled still, every once in a while, but maybe less catastrophically. At day’s end, the mountain in the street had been relocated and the garden was filled. My hands were blistered, my shoulders and legs ached, and I was a little relieved at the fresh notion of physical pain for a change.

The next morning, Jeff laid the sprinkler lines and I began to place the potted plants in their respective areas. They looked even more sickly in the vastness of the rich, dark earth. This isn’t a garden, I thought, it’s hospice. And as I placed the first stunted Zucchini plant in the soft dirt, I nodded. At least you’ll get to die with some dignity.

We transplanted the strawberries, all of which looked like bereft widows of a civil war by the time I got them in the ground. I told my six year old daughter they probably wouldn’t make it, but not to worry. We’d replant next spring.

We also transplanted Lavender, Sage, and Rosemary; all of them robust before the injury of being dug up. I placed them in the quadrant with all the herbs. They’d have new neighbors, but they were used to that kind of thing, like living in a college town where semester after semester fresh, young renters move in next door, live loud and wild and fast…and then one morning they’re gone and there’s a sofa on your front lawn.

I put the tragic, tragic tomatoes in. Four of them; all heirlooms; all around ten inches tall or less with seven yellowing leaves between them.

The peppers were the next in line. They too were straggly. I thought they might have had mange. I didn’t hold out too much hope for them. But then, I never hold out too much hope for the peppers. I haven’t unlocked their secrets. I’m a piss poor pepper steward, if we’re honest.

And finally the cucumbers went in. Cucumbers are temperamental. I think they are in a permanent state of adolescence. They are prone to water stress and bitterness and their vine and leaves will break out in a powdery fungus if they think you are playing favorites (and not in their favor.)

I stood back and surveyed the garden. It was a sad landscape. Little vegetable bodies slumped, wilted all over the place. My insides tumbled again and I resented the garden’s need of me, anew. Then my daughter enthusiastically asked about the seeds we’d bought together in April in anticipation of our spring planting.

Jeff brought the seeds. Carrots. Radishes. Onion bulbs. Basil. Peas. Beans. It was all a little ambitious, I thought. But we sprinkled the seeds and my daughter beamed at the thought of her beautiful carrots and peas. I think she even called the radishes, “precious.”

If love could make a garden grown, then surely her seeds would sprout.

Days dawned and stretched out over my garden and my broken heart. Sometimes it just hurt so much to be indoors with voices and televisions murmuring and laundry piles. I’d retreat to the garden. I’d check on the plants, all of their survival still questionable. Some looked as though they were getting stronger every day. Most didn’t. But I tended them. I watered them after the heat of the day. I pulled any stray weeds that tried to take root. And I told myself it was okay to feel broken here, among the infirm. I think I probably told the tomatoes the very same thing. All were welcome. Yes, we were sickly, but we were doing the best we could. And I was proud of us.

Jeff carefully laid a beautiful pavestone path through the heart of the garden. My daughter and I strolled through each afternoon watching the eager seeds she’d planted push themselves up through the soft dirt, what seemed like an insurmountable task, and yet, here they were, their faces shining.

One of the two cucumbers, I assume, was planted with drips of sweat from Jeff’s brow because it displayed an unparalleled stubbornness, refusing to die, while the other lay down his head and slowly withered away.

The tomato plants, whom any generous gardener would have given a 50/50 chance of making it early on, slipped from that scale entirely in the days and weeks after planting as they fully embraced the shock of having their roots pulled out from underneath them. I understood. In fact, I thought I knew exactly how they felt. I gave them a little extra water in the afternoons, let them soak their feet and wished them well. I decided not to make any more predictions about their fate.

More cycles of sun and shadow. More days of sewing and mending, seeds and hearts. Jeff and I had almost daily conversations about whether or not to replace the squash plants or sage brush or this pepper or that one. We probably still had time if we did it soon. But I dragged my feet. If these plants made it, so be it, if not, I’d see it through.
This is what I call the "Wreck the Dress" phase, as this poor Squash appears to have had a raucus evening and is unfortunately dragging the trane of her ball gown through the mud.

The squash and Zucchini and peppers rallied and began to gain noticeable ground each day. I eventually replaced the dead cucumber because they are social plants and the lone, stubborn plant needed a yin to his yang atop the little hill.

The end became glaringly evident for my big, brave Sage brush as thick, woody arms faded and dried up, one after the other until all that was left were the skeletal remains. I planted a sprite, new Variegated Sage there in memoriam.

I’m afraid my lovely Lavender will soon have a similar fate, even though she has persevered these six long weeks. She is languishing.

The strawberries, mere sticks poking out of the ground but weeks ago, are thriving. They have turned themselves out, hardships be damned, each one sits beneath a canopy of beautiful leaves and is sending out long runners that will become next spring’s daughter plants.

The tomatoes, once best described as “puny”-my Dad’s favorite word for me when I was sick as a child- have stood themselves up right through the tops of their cages and are each heavy with bright green, round fruit of varying sizes. The plants will soon be taller than me.

And after all those weeks of whispering in the garden of heart break and wither, I find myself considering possibilities. Not that my sadness is gone. I would give almost anything to sit with my Dad one more time; to be a daughter, held in her father’s gaze. I miss him so much. But as frail as I feel, perhaps there is hope for me yet. Maybe with a little tending, my roots will find their way.

The garden has surpassed me in mending, no question. But that’s ok. We’re all just doing the best we can.