On the drive into the city I passed a sign that said "community garden" there on a spot that once held a small and very ancient drive in theater. The area itself tends towards the lower income, even a fast food restaurant in the area, going out of business. Houses are small, and lots are smaller, few would have space for a garden in their own yard. The houses crowd along the curve of a busy street, paint faded into dark shadows of brown and grey, that cut in and out of shadows, porches sagging just feet from a street that if widened further will be at their front door.
From a distance they look less like homes and more like a ghostly herd of creatures reaching their heads down to drink from a ghostly stream. A garden, a bit of life in this place, a bit of color, neighbors coming together to work and grow. This will be a good thing, I think as I pass yet another failed business, another shuttered home, driving down a road as silent and as black as Styx.
Still, Dad always had a garden, even if it was only about 12 x 12 feet in size. Every year he'd till till the soil, and we'd help him plant the seeds. I was expected to help with the watering and the weeding, but I got a quarter for every bucket of weeds I'd pull, as this duty was above and beyond the other many chores I had, for which there was no allowance given, only a roof, food and love.. I didn't particularly enjoy the task, but Dad wanted us to learn, early on, that nothing is given to you and money is earned.
The neighbors had gardens as well, and when someone was on vacation we'd water and tend to their garden, as they did ours. Seeing the sign for the community garden, I thought of that. I thought of it again, as the front flowerbeds at the Range were cleared of weeds. For a hundred years flowers have bloomed here, plants shooting up the lattice as the children in the home themselves, sprouted, grew strong, and then left.
As I secured the lattice I had to stop and sort my words, as memories came unbidden, color, movement, shape. My mom bending over the garden, helping my Dad week, a young woman over whom death had already casts its shadow as surely as the apple tree sharing her that day. In this garden here today, I can smell the perfume of her beloved roses and the remembrance of the fluid movements of her hands in the soil as real to me as a tide. She worked in the same way as she watched over us. Steady, gentle, certain.
Mom enjoyed convenience as much as anyone, but they made a conscious decision for her to stay home to be a full time Mom. She'd been a Deputy Sheriff for 18 years, a career she was proud of, but she was more proud to simply say her job was "Mom" when they adopted us late in life. But that meant the budget didn't allow for expensive prepared foods from the grocers but for the occasional treat and baking supplies. We ate well, we just ate within our means. We grew, we fished, we bought a steer and raised it with a neighbor who had more land, butchering it to feed two hungry families each year. Mom and my grandmother who lived with us, baked bread and canned, not just food from the garden but the fruit off of the trees, the yard having a large and hardy, apple tree.
It wasn't always a success. We had the occasional two inch mutant carrots, small tomatoes, or no corn at all. Dad had a fence tall enough to keep deer out. Small critters were still an issue and the fact that he caught my Mom putting scraps out for the possum he'd been trying to hunt down and kill to keep it from eating his produce didn't help. But he didn't get angry at her. He never did, accepting her quirks as she did his, with a bemused smile and tenderness that always hovered about like the beating of small wings.
When my parents were tired, when they were worn with work and worry, they simply held on, to their dream, to each other even if all that we witnessed of the effort was Dad picking up her trowel so she could rest, with a touch of hand on her cheek that left a smudge of dark earthy soil/ Such moments, such movements, were a glimpse of a profound intimacy we weren't yet old enough to grasp, but which stayed with me like a small glimpse of some sustaining truth.
I didn't particularly like gardening; I still don't. But it was, and is, a good lesson in life. Sometimes you do the work, putting months, even years into something and it doesn't work out. The best of intentions can't always sway mother nature or the yearning of the human heart. here comes a time, when you are left to reach into the tangled remains, through the tumbled underbrush, the barren patches, where all seems to be dead, but something is left for you, if only a goodbye. Perhaps there is one last piece of fruit on that vine. Perhaps you can pluck one last bit of nourishment before it is gone, the bittersweet against your tongue, one final taste of the reason you started it in the first place.
Dad can not keep up his garden, even with assistance, he could not bend to pull from the soil, that which he desired. He only bends down now to lay down upon a grave in a military cemetery, the flowers he has slain in honor of his love, watered by his tears, upon a hilltop where the soil holds fast to what's left of honor. I will watch him there from a distance, giving him time alone, watching him as he likely used to watch me. We'll stay until the shadows deepen and the river darkens, the inevitable task of the night, falling down upon our presence, darkness fading the very outlines of stone, burying the outlines of this place, this day, like the soft and steady fall of ash. It is only then, that he will leave.
Dad's garden is fallow, but on the deck, within a few feet of the door to the family room are two elevated barrels and a trellis on which grow just a few tomatoes. He can water without bending, and pull them from the vine without effort, to enjoy, if only briefly, that gift, until nothing remains of it but memory, a shadow in the light.
Today in my own flowerbeds, pulling yet another weed among the flowers, I find a small penny, dated a lifetime ago and pluck it from the soil like some forlorn magician. I wonder where it came from; who dropped it here and when. I wash it with the hose, revealing a gleam that still exists even if what it represents won't buy a single thing, in and of itself.
I'm tired, but there is still much to do, as I look around this place that is now my heart's home. The grass devours the sunshine, the flowers nibbling at the crumbs. I drink from the hose, let the water trickle down the back of my neck as I look to the east. There beyond a crowded urban sprawl I have little time or attention for, is a large body of water, that's been here before this land was tended, and will be there longer after we are dust. The haze rises off of it, the sunshine catching its surface, lending to it the form of a mirror in which the city is only an illusion.
I put my hands down into the soil, drawing air deep into my lungs, fueling my thoughts, my hands, my regrets. In the now silent sky hovers a bird, it's wings fluttering down over me, as if it were watching.