We’re driving into the city, my husband Doug and I, the car filled with pickaxes and shovels and flats of marigolds and pots of tomatoes. It’s Mother’s Day, and we’re headed to our daughter’s house — well, to her apartment in West Philly. She and her husband Basil have a backyard, and she wants to put in a garden. Somehow, it seems like just the right task for Mother’s Day.
When she and her brother were little, I got to choose an excursion for Mother’s Day. We’d head for the Zoo, or Longwood Gardens; once we went to the Shore. It was windy and cold; we took photos of the kids bundled in blankets on the beach, and ate supper at a Jersey diner. I don’t remember how much fun it was at the time, but now when I look at the photos of that long-ago afternoon, it looks wonderful. Little kids, little problems — isn’t that what they say?
I’m not sure about Marcy and the garden. She has, frankly, a mixed record when it comes to houseplants. She likes the idea of houseplants better than houseplants themselves, I think. They’re so much trouble; they drop leaves; they have to be watered. You have to remember to open your blinds or they won’t get sun. It may be madness to haul all these little pots of oregano and basil and jalapeño peppers and petunias to her house. But it’s a nice day, and if I’d stayed home, I’d just have been digging in my own garden all day.
Doug has brought along every garden tool we own, which is a considerable haul because he has most of his parents’ old garden tools as well as whatever ones we’ve accumulated over the years. I tease him that we’re way over-equipped, and he nods stoically: “Just wait. You never know what you’re going to need till you need it.” This is why our marriage has lasted 31 long years: He puts up with the teasing, and I put up with a trunk full of gardening implements. We compliment each other. Yin and yang.
The plot of ground behind Marcy and Basil’s apartment is full of weeds, and one lonely azalea. The four of us yank the weeds out by handfuls, and fill two trash bags. Then we start at the four corners, digging in and turning the earth over. It’s rich and brown and riddled with worms. I hit a plastic bag and freeze. Ever since this joint chore was proposed, I’ve been expecting to find a body while we’re digging. Marcy stares in horror at the corner of the bag: “It’s just like Law & Order SVU!”
“Maybe it’s just a plastic bag,” Doug suggests, and digs it up to prove it. Marcy and I laugh at our exaggerated fear.
Basil’s family has a farm back in Kenya. He’s good with the pickax, but once we start in planting, it turns out his feet have an affinity for landing on seedlings. Finally he and Marcy get into a rhythm—he digs a hole, she sticks a plant in and fills it, while Doug and I sit and watch on the back stoop. Basil isn’t making the holes in lines that are straight enough for Marcy. I mention to her that part of gardening is letting go. You can’t control the weather, or what the squirrels and raccoons will do.
Across the back fence, another couple is planting their garden. They speak in a soft patter of Chinese, and wave and laugh at us. We wave back. A couple of women appear in the yard next door—they might be Iranian. One of them confesses that she swiped the container she’s planted with peppers in her yard out of our yard a couple of weeks ago. “No one’s planted anything over there in years,” she says sheepishly, in her own defense. Doesn’t matter. We have more than enough ground to fill.
Rows of tiny sunflower seedlings. Tomatoes. Basil. Portulaca. I broadcast cilantro and mesclun between the rows. “How many of those seeds will actually come up?” Marcy wants to know. One in a hundred, I tell her. That’s why they give you so many in a packet that costs a buck.
Finally, every plant has a home. Time to water. I’ve brought along an old watering can. There’s an outdoor faucet, but no hose. A trip to Home Depot is in order. Turns out Basil has never been to a Home Depot. Turns out Basil likes Home Depot. “It makes you want to do things,” he says, and buys a gas grill and a new showerhead.
We have Mother's Day dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant — spongy bread sopping up puddles of lentils and spiced chicken and lamb. Marcy and Basil announce that they’re getting a kitten — “as practice for a dog,” she says. I think about the houseplants, but I keep my mouth shut. You have to start somewhere with nurturing. Plant some cilantro and work up. When we first brought Marcy home from the hospital, I was afraid to bathe her; I’d been traumatized by that scene in Rabbit, Run where Janice drowns the baby in the tub.
Part of life is accepting the possibility of loss, though. Doug and I have been talking about moving back to the city. “By the time you do that,” Marcy says, “we’ll probably be living out on the West Coast.” We’ll face that when we come to it. They’re here, now. They’re planted, with a garden. They have a gas grill, and citronella candles. Tonight the sunflower roots will reach down a little farther into the darkness. Tomorrow the stems will stretch a little closer to the sky.
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