“Oh, tomatoes and peppers, carrots and lettuce, something like that,” I said, brushing him off; that’s not what I meant when I told him I garden. Those vegetables that I’ll put straight in the ground from farmers’ market containers and seed packets are not what make me a gardener at all. What I meant, I realized, is that I weed.
My sole intent as a gardener is to hold back the tide of scrubby plants so as to reveal the hearty perennials that return every year, planted by some former owner of our home and land who years ago had a quiet sense of what goes together: hollyhocks that magically appear every other year in unpredictable places, opening their pale cornhusk dresses and waving in the wind; sturdy autumn sedum with their dusky, thick leaves springing in a full cluster wide enough to wrap your arms around; delicate bleeding hearts dripping from their stems, fanned out like a deck of cards. Each plant as unique as my girls, with a personality all its own.
I would not have chosen any of these plants myself, yet here I am tending them. Tending, to me, means leaving them quite alone. I do not prune, shape, or relocate; I see my role as simply to turn the soil that surrounds them, provide the contrast of bare earth against their solid lines, reveal their stunning nature for what it is.
I’ve never thought of myself as much of a gardener. To me real gardeners spend hours planning their landscapes, composing lush scenes with pencil and paper through the barren winter. They shop at garden stores, spend sums of money they sometimes later say they regret. Their trips result in glorious clematis that grace a garage wall, or a fruit tree pinned flat to stay out of the path to the alley, or a smorgasbord of hostas, a new variety planted every year. Nothing so tended will ever emerge from our yard.
I add little to our garden, save what comes my way by chance – a birthday gift of deep magenta peonies whose tight buds crawl with ants; a rose bush offered by a neighbor and taken on a whim, forever sleeping and creeping, only this year showing signs of leaping.
When I’m in the garden removing the dense mat of weeds that threatens to choke the plants I love, I see my role as caretaker, the one who holds back chaos, watering only when drought threatens their survival, ensuring their roots are not crowded by the weeds that seem to proliferate overnight. I have often suspected these perennials could survive quite well without me. But that, I realize, has been my goal all along: a self-sufficient garden able to withstand the cruelties of the world.
The other night, getting ready for a concert M was sending me to with our two eldest girls, it occurred to me that I parent like I garden. I am not a hands-on mother who intercedes at every step. I don’t offer much help with school assignments, nor insist on witnessing their every sports match. Here too I see my role as providing the backdrop from which to set off the best of my girls’ abilities, and to counterbalance the threat that comes from the weeds that crowd them, the once-friends whose words cut, the dark, false thoughts that seek to drown out their light. I don’t add much fertilizer or even water often, but I’m always here, arms open, and they know it.
“Too bad no one seems to want to go to the concert tonight,” M said of my lack of visible excitement at the prospect of taking our two oldest girls to see Billy Joel, his Christmas gift finally upon us. There are times when I can get giddy with anticipation, swept up in the moment, but for whatever reason I wasn’t outwardly ready for this Saturday night; if offered the choice I might have opted to stay home for a quiet evening instead, feeling somewhat pushed out of my comfort zone with this gift of three tickets for me, S, and C.
Since I was the parent on a mission that night, I sensed that he wanted me to take charge, set the mood for the girls and whip them up into the sort of frenzy he would if he’d been the one taking them. But the girls didn’t appear to suffer for my lack of revving to stir their own excitement. I left that up to them. I would provide the companionship, the tickets, the ride, and hoped that was enough.
By the time we arrived at the Target Center, my girls were each brimming with the energy they’d gathered inside themselves, not planted by me at all – the crowds in the entry hall, the busy escalators, the hazy venue, the magnitude of the steadily filling stadium buoying them. The lull before the main act finally led S to grab my arm and say, “I’m going to cry if he doesn’t come out soon; I can’t stand it!,” her eyes wide and full of hope for the music to come.
Her anticipation was so genuine and full, I saw there had been no need for me to build her up to make her excitement spill over. It was just as I’d hoped, my hands-off nature paying off in spades.
Later that night back at home, after singing along to the songs we all knew, watching the aging icon with baggy eyes and thickening middle magnified on the screens above, his warm voice as clear as when he first wrote those songs, I caught C in the hallway to say good night. She hugged me tight, surprising me when she whispered, “I think this might have been the best night of my life.” And then she slipped off to bed, her 13-year-old’s pianist and budding composer’s heart stirred by the hours of being in the presence of a master; she was up until 2 a.m. replaying it in her mind, casting herself at the piano, she’d tell me in the morning.
After a winter of self-doubt, imploding friendships and shaken self-confidence, these words from an at-times fragile girl at risk of being choked by early teen angst were a balm to my heart.
To garden, indeed to parent, is to reveal. All I can do is hold the weeds in check. Let the sun and rain course down their growing stalks to reach the roots that strain in the black earth, unseen. Stand back and watch my flowers grow.