In Search of My Mother’s Garden

The house is not the only place that needs to be cleaned out, or where I search for my mother. The hillside garden—that was grass I sometimes mowed, before I left home in 1970, with the Toro Flymo hover mower to avoid having to be on raking detail—is the only outdoor area my mother really tended to in the past couple decades. It was a glorious riot of colorful perennials and flowering shrubs all spring and summer: heather, rhododendron, Shasta daisies, lavender, yarrow, iris, allium, dianthus, sweet woodruff, my grandmother’s lemon lilies.

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Emma and Wynne’s 2012 wedding; the last time the garden looked good.

I’ve been here seven years this summer, and have paid it only cursory attention, pulling blackberry vines and cutting down dead stems—nearly wiping out the Canterbury bells in my zealous outrage at having to do the task at all after my mother stopped hiring people to care for it, and stopped caring about it herself. I don’t like working in other people’s gardens, and even my own interest me much more in the creation than the maintenance. It lost all its variety under my watch, only the most hardy survived.

One day last week, though, I walked past it on my way to somewhere else and realized that in the barrenness of winter, before the weeds take hold, it doesn’t look as daunting. I could just rake out the moss, I thought, kicking it up easily with the toe of my rubber boot; bring in some top soil.

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Nothing seems as daunting to me in winter, when all is stripped down to its bones. I see more clearly when there are neither flowers nor weeds; potential rather than obstacles. I’m embarking on a new writing project, diving into the lives of my father and his siblings before I knew them through 1200 letters written during WWII and boxes of photographs, hoping to record their legacy and put it between book covers. It’s easier to attend that project at the desk by the electric fireplace while the rain splats against the window and patters on the roof, occasionally thickening with fat snow flakes, than when sun and warmth beckon. But where to start? How to move forward on this epic idea that right now is hair thin?

Last Sunday, as the wintry mix came down outside the window, covering the moss and weed garden, I dozed in my father’s recliner with my sister’s cat—on loan while she was away—while half listening to a rebroadcast of interviews on “Story the Future.

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Mary Alice Arthur said something that woke me from my snooze: “Start with the crack, not with boulder. You know,” she said, “that’s where the light is.” Oh, I thought, kind of like don’t look too far ahead.

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What can I do toward getting the letters and the stories my father and his siblings have written of their childhood braided together? How can I bring my mother’s garden to new life as I am doing inside the house, moving out unloved possessions to spotlight those that mean something to me? Where is the crack?

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My dad on the left. Donald at right. The sixth child not yet born.

I can read the letters and the stories, study the photographs. (Thank you to my cousin David for scanning and sending 50 photos I’ve never seen before from albums rescued from the farm after our Uncle Donald died at 106.) I can figure out what I want to have learned about this American mid-west farm family at the end of the book. That’s all I need to focus on right now. What comes in the middle can be left for later discovery.

And I can strip the garden down to dirt. Those cracks are all I need to focus on right now.

When February’s snow and rain took a one day hiatus last Thursday, I skipped my weekly yoga and Olympia day and got outside while the ice was still formed on the puddles and fog still filled the valley as the sun rose promisingly above it.

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I cut down the dead stems of last year’s daisies and rudbeckia, raked out the moss, dug up clumps of grassy weeds, pulled out rogue blackberry vines, and finished extracting the dead branches from the rhododendron thicket. (And, as always, tried to avoid getting sucked down the rabbit hole of all the other tasks that need to be done. One crack at a time.) For the first time in these years here, I started getting curious about what the garden could be. It will always be my mother’s garden, but it’s time to put my own touch on it.

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Before.
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Headed toward cleaned out and ready for what comes next.

As I sat at the dining room table eating my lunch during a brief break, I wondered if my mother is pleased that I’ve finally taken an interest in her favorite flower bed. Just then a bald eagle glided down the valley and swooped over the house and back into view, making several passes. A few minutes after it disappeared, a red-tailed hawk took its place. I only rarely see these birds of prey here, up close enough to see the white head, the red feathers. When I do, I imagine they are my mother and father checking in and, hopefully, approving what I’m doing on this property they loved and nourished for most of my life. I took their appearance as a sign that all is well; though I suppose it could as easily have been a warning to back off.

My body aching, I was grateful for the return to rain, snow, sleet, and wind the next day. I buried myself again in my aunt’s letters to her parents from a dirt-floored tent in Italy in 1944 with the 36th General Hospital, where she washed her clothes in her helmet. When favorable weather returns, I’ll give my mother’s garden one more pass with hoe and shovel, then bring in topsoil and fertilizer. I will let it sit this summer to see what was deep enough in the ground to escape my decluttering. The daisies and rudbeckia, the heather, a clump of daffodils remain above ground. Hopefully the Canterbury bells, alium, and lilies will come back and I can mark their positions. Next spring I will plant around the enduring presence of my mother’s hands.

These are the cracks. This is what I can do right now to find my mother’s garden and to make my own mark. I will be with my writing tribe on Whidbey Island for the next week, diving into whatever opening I can find on my ambitious writing project; striving not to run into the boulder of self-doubt and the magnitude of that adventure.

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4 thoughts on “In Search of My Mother’s Garden

  1. ” Next spring I will plant around the enduring presence of my mother’s hands. ”

    That is so beautiful. I love when you write about the gardens in your life. So much metaphor. Even more, I feel like you are working everything out as you plant words on the page. Honored to witness your stories and your process. Hope your time away is fruitful and joyful. 

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  2. I await your book. My father published his stories for the years from 1936 to 1946, when his life dream changed with his location. I put my parents wartime letters into the collection at LSU. Still haven’t read them. My mother started to read one, got read and made me promise to wait till she was dead to read them. Must go up and copy them sometime.
    There is a published book with letters from WWII nurses I found in the Houston library, published in the early 50s. Don’t remember the name but they were fascinating to me.

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    1. I would love to see that book. I heard that “some place” in LA might take the letters when I’m finished with them. I hope you read yours some time; it’s really fascinating, even if like my letters, they couldn’t really say much because of the censors. Such a window into who they were. Thanks for your comment.

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