My mother loved to garden. She spent most of her time outdoors – a Swedish, blonde, fair skinned, woman who freckled and burned year after year – her house merely a place she slept , so that she could return outside again the next day. She could grow anything – we once had a huge bird of paradise plant that got so big that it took up our entire porch. People told her that they were tropical outdoor plants, impossible to grow inside or in cold climates. She’d listen; smile, and nod – like she was actually listening to their advice – and then she would go home to defy their textbook logic. There were ferns so big that they appeared almost exotic. There was the year that she brought back avocado pits from a California trip (avocados weren’t readily available in northern stores at that time). She grew avocado trees so high that they bent over in the hallway beneath the 10′ ceiling. She gave those to a school when at last she gave up on houseplants and went to Arizona for the winters.
Though my mother could grow houseplants, she preferred to garden outdoors. And garden she did. She planted everything that she could think of, trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. My mother had a huge garden with peas, beans, potatoes, beets, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, watermelons, strawberries, and dill. She was particularly proud of her cucumbers and strawberries. As a child, I hated being told to go weed the garden. I had allergies, couldn’t tolerate heat or humidity, hated bugs, and could think of a million things that I would rather be doing. If I knew that she was heading to the garden, I would find a paperback, climb a tree to sit high in the branches to read, or go the woods, where it was shaded and cool and poke around stuff with branches that had fallen or broken off. I was a garden deserter, always AWOL.
My mother would can at least 30 or more quarts of dill pickles each year and always set the table with a dish of pickles. Sometimes there were pickled beets. One year she left me in charge of the beets, which were cooking in a pressure cooker, while she went outside for something. I probably watched it for a couple of seconds before drifting off to read a book or daydream about something. At some point in my absence, the cooker started hissing, and I returned to the kitchen to consider what was happening. I didn’t consider for long before beets covered the kitchen ceiling, floor, and everything else in the room, including me. It is pretty hard to make up an excuse when covered in purple beets. I got out of pulling weeds that day by cleaning every surface of the kitchen. My hands were purplish red for days.
I could say that I inherited my mother’s green thumb, but that wouldn’t be truthful. I never really asked my mother why she planted. I thought it was because it was a way to economize, but that wouldn’t have explained all of the flowers. Perhaps she planted for some of the same reasons that I do. I’ll never know the answer. I love to witness the seeds as they sprout up, leaves unfurling, gaining height and strength, until they explode in a riot of colors. I have always found a space to plant – whether it was in an apartment window or a hillside covered in lilies or irises. There was the house that was always in shade where I cultivated a variety of hostas – divided them yearly -until they covered an entire hill behind the house. There are the dahlias that lived year after year with careful placement of wintered over bulbs, until one too mild winter when they molded. Then there are the zinnia and marigolds that cover increasingly larger areas each summer. I love the oranges and yellows of the marigolds, but don’t like the smell. Luckily for me, critters don’t like the smell either; so many other flower varieties are surrounded by them to keep them from becoming a snack for the wildlife. This brings me to the zinnias. I have multiple kinds of zinnias – though I can’t tell you their names. Every year, I plant bags of seeds, collected from the year prior, and watch them grow tall and strong. They bloom well into fall. Sometimes, I find old sheets or tablecloths to cover them, when the weather forecast is for frost. Finally, when there is no longer a chance to keep them blooming, or I tire of the daily ritual of covering and uncovering them, I let them go. When they are done blooming, and the lovely colors have turned brown, and the plants become dry, I pick the seeds apart, flower by flower, until I have gathered paper bags of seeds. When I have finished picking the seeds, I pull the plants from the ground to compost. There is a sense of emptiness – to see the place where the colors once were beacons for butterflies and bees – now dry, with the darkness of soil and fallen leaves. But there is beauty in that also. The turning of the seasons reminds me of the cycles of life, and the wonderment that occurs year after year, of rebirth and renewal.
I will never love bugs, heat, or humidity, so I’ll probably never plant a vegetable garden. I have planted herbs and lettuces in planters, but I would prefer going to the Farmer’s Market. I plant many other things and love to watch them grow and bloom.It is, perhaps the mother in me, the nurturer, the creator. I have spent years creating; my hands in clay, or covered in paint, hands in soil planting seeds or roots in the earth and watching the life cycle of all. I have never felt closer to God, as the Creator, then when I am in that creative, nurturing mode.
This spring I will get out my bags of seeds and plant again. I will, I am certain, feel the divine within me. The earth will turn, flowers will sprout and bloom and life will be renewed. Perhaps for a moment, I will see my mother, sunburned and silent, watching over the new life that has sprung from the earth. My mother and I are certainly unique in our journey and purpose, but perhaps more alike than different in our humanness.