Sunday in the Garden With Jake

It started out as a weekend chore. It turned into a glimpse of what my future with my son might be.

I had just finished mowing the lawn for the first time this season when my 20-year-old son Jake appeared at the back door. “Want me to mow the lawn?” he asked brightly. Then he noticed all the newly shorn grass. “Oh. I guess you’re done. Well … ” He turned to head back inside, to his computer, with its bright lights and loud sounds and endless fun and games.

“Hold on!” I said, wiping sweat out of my eyes. “I do have a job for you, as it happens.”

“What job?” He sounded cautious. He knows me. I could have anything in mind from painting the garage to washing the windows. Spring is for spruce-ups, right?

But this was easy. “See those big clumps of grass?” I asked, pointing to the edge of our concrete patio, right along the fence that divides our backyard from that of our neighbors. “I already loosened them up with a shovel. But I need you to pull them out of the ground.”

“From over here?”

“No. You’ll have to go into the Gomezes’ yard.”

“Should I ask?”

“I’ll do it,” I told him, and knocked on Ruth and Julio’s back door. Ruth was behind her refrigerator, slapping bright turquoise paint on the wall. Spring is for spruce-ups.

“Is it okay if Jake comes into your yard to pull out some weeds?” I asked her, after complimenting her color choice.

“Sure. Let me get the dog out of the yard. Vanessa!” She shouted for teenage daughter, who came out back and grabbed the dog and hauled him inside.

Jake was slowly putting on his flip-flops. This was not how he’d planned to spend the afternoon. But he humored me, heading into Ruth’s yard, and I pointed out the clumps that needed removing. The first one came out pretty easily. The next one had grown up right around a fence post, half on our side and half on Ruth’s, with the roots wound in and out of the cyclone fencing. I ran back and forth, fetching clippers and shovels and spades at Jake’s direction while he hacked away. By working together, we managed to pull the clump free after about 15 minutes of tugging and cutting. “You thought this was going to be easier, didn’t you?” Jake asked. I allowed that I did.

The next clump had some reddish-green shoots rising out of it. “What are these?” he asked.

“Peonies,” I told him. “You can just pull those out, too. They’re left over from when Ray and Sarah lived next door.” He doesn’t remember Ray and Sarah, the elderly couple who moved out when he was only four or five. They were serious gardeners, specializing in spring bulbs. The lilies-of-the-valley in my side yard crept over from theirs, and so did the gorgeous sky-blue irises that bloom every June. So did the two peony plants I have, a pink one and a deep maroon one. I didn’t actively plant any of these; they simply appeared, volunteers migrating from one side of the fence to the other. The peony Jake was contemplating was on the Gomezes’ side; no doubt about that. But Ruth and Julio have four kids, not to mention the dog. They aren’t gardeners. Freed from its grassy cover, that plant wouldn’t last 10 minutes.

“Peonies live a really long time,” I mentioned. “Lots of times they’re the last plants left in abandoned gardens.”

“I think I can work around this one,” Jake said thoughtfully. I should have known. He’s tenderhearted; he doesn’t like to hurt things or kill things—which is kind of weird when you consider that he spends hours every day blowing stuff up on his computer. But plants are real, and he didn’t want this one to get hacked to death.

His older sister Marcy will never be a gardener. She doesn’t like dirt. She has a bad track record with houseplants. But I have hope for Jake. He likes flowers; he’s genuinely interested when I point out that the orange tree in the living room is blooming, or call him out back to show him the first rose of the year. For his Eagle Scout project, he planted four gardens at the four entrances to our small town. That was a few years ago. We still go back five or six times each summer, to weed and mulch and water if the weather’s bone-dry. I can see him 30 or 40 years from now, raising giant dahlias or fussing over rhododendrons in his own backyard.

I leaned on the shovel and watched as he gently teased the grass roots free of the tender peony stalks. It was painstaking work, and Jake isn’t ordinarily a painstaking guy—he’s more rough-and-tumble. Yet there he sat, cross-legged on the neighbors’ lawn, working hard to save a plant. I don’t know that I’ve ever loved him more.

“Can I have that shovel?” he asked. He’d removed all the grass and was grappling in the dirt with his hands, trying to follow the contour of the peony’s root. “Oh my God,” he said in surprise.


“This thing is huge.” He took the shovel and began to dig around the root. He had to hollow dirt out well under the patio before it finally came free—a mass the size of his head, spooky-looking, with faintly human legs and arms coming out of it. I thought of mandrake, and the old wives’ tale that it screams when you yank it out of the ground. If this could have screamed, it would.

“What should I do with it?” he asked.

“I’ll plant it over here, I guess.” I hurried to find a spot and dig a hole, working in some compost and accompanying worms. Jake moved on down the fence to the next clump of grass. It, too, harbored a hidden peony, and he went through the whole laborious process again, emerging triumphantly with another huge root in the end.

When I was a kid, my dad used to drive my little sister and me to his mom’s house—our widowed grandmother’s—every Saturday. While we played with dolls, he trimmed the hedges, mowed the lawn for her, moved rosebushes around at her command. I hadn’t thought of those Saturday visits in ages. Watching Jake dig out those wizened roots reminded me of them, though. He and I don’t talk a lot—what 20-year-old male wants to talk with his Mom? But we were companionable, working together at our task in the garden. It was a glimpse of how we might get along together in the years ahead, which is something I wonder about. I like to think he’ll come out on the other end of young adulthood as chatty and extroverted as his sister. But she was chatty and extroverted at the age of two, and he never has been. He keeps his counsel. He’s hard to know.

Here’s what I do know. He spent his Sunday afternoon with me, rescuing ancient peonies. He was more careful at the job than I could have asked him to be. He was satisfied when the work was done. When those peonies bloom, he’ll have a stake in them. We’ll have a stake in them together. Maybe someday, when I’m too old and frail to garden, we’ll move them to his yard, and they’ll carry on.