Winter may have come in late this year, but it came in strong, and so I reach for the little square tin on the corner of the counter before I put my gloves on. It’s a tin of bag balm–not glamorous, not sweet-smelling, but the only thing we’ve found that keeps our fingertips from cracking painfully in the clear cold Ohio winter air. I pull the tin toward me, and a packet, stuck behind it, falls forward.
Perhaps I haven’t moved the bag balm since the onset of summer–is that possible? The falling packet is full of sunflower seeds, bought in a faintly remembered burst of optimistic planning–and never, of course, planted.
I look out the big window at the frigid snow, so cold it sparkles with its own blue light, and I think of gardens.
I am nostalgic for gardens in the depths of winter; I am neglectful of them when the warm weather comes. I do not have a green thumb; I do not glory, as many friends do, in the feel of earth, pulsing with life, crumbled in my bare hands. Right now, the thought of growing things, in fact, brings me up short; I run out to the sunporch and rescue two houseplants, practically howling with the shock of this morning’s below-zero temps. I put them on the big windowsill in the family room, in the warmth of the furnace and the pale glow of the winter sun. I whisper, “Sorry,” and I treat them with lukewarm water, and I hope I haven’t killed yet another plant.
What would Larry think, our dear friend Larry, whose garden is an amazement to all? When he moved to our former small town, Larry bought a nice but ordinary house, and he set about transforming the grounds into an amazing bower. He filled the yards with trees and bushes; he built a pond and aerated it with a fountain; he studied the shade and the sun and the deer and the soil and he built up a perennial garden that bloomed all year long. And when he got it perfect and there was nothing else to do, he sold that lovely home and started all over again.
Larry would look at my poor, languishing, half-frozen plants, and he’d shake his head sadly.
Or how about Helen, who lived down the street from us when Jim was a baby, and who would walk by and look despairingly at the ragged and random plantings in my yard. Helen, perennially tanned and loose-limbed, her hair a wild, sun-parched snarl of gray cork-screws, would go home and trudge back with plantings. A blue geranium. Three kinds of hosta. Daffodil bulbs and day lilies, astilbe and yarrow. Here, she’d point; these are for the shade. These, for bright sun.
She’d instruct me on watering and weeding and walk away, knowing I’d forget or get distracted and that half of what she gave me would probably wither and die.
But still, she had to try. Helen was the kind of gardener who celebrated when her kids gave her half a truckload of manure for Mother’s Day–the sweetest gift, she proudly told us, she’d ever, ever gotten.
Nurturers, those gardening folks, nurturers and artists, a little bit tetched and a whole lot brilliant. They are kindred; they are tribe members. I do wish, often, that I belonged.
There’s a garden in Consider the Lily, by Elizabeth Buchan, a sad and neglected garden that harbors secret pain. It is, maybe, a metaphor for Matty, small and bereft, orphaned and unwanted since she was very young. But monied–Matty inherited great wealth from her eccentric parents, who, off on an escapade, died of typhoid in their tent, leaving Matty to the unkind care of her Aunt Susan. Matty suffered, growing up in the bright light of her cousin Daisy’s allure. Matty was tiny and sickly. Daisy glowed.
Aunt Susan never left Matty forget how unfair it was that she, plain and undeserving, should be the one with the wherewithal to snare a husband with her wealth.
And–because she loves him, and maybe, a little bit for vengeance,–when Daisy’s beloved leaves her, knowing that he’ll have to save the family fortunes by marrying money, Matty proposes to him. And Kit accepts.
But it’s not the great bargain she hopes for. In Kit’s sad family, secrets are withheld. Matty does her best to transform the house–shows grace and tact no one could have expected from her, in fact. But she cannot seem to start a baby. And she cannot seem to ignite Kit’s love. And so she finds herself drawn to the garden.
But Kit says no. She cannot put her hand to the garden–must not transform the tangle of neglect into a place of beauty. There’s something hidden there, it seems,–some past tragedy that Kit cannot face and cannot discuss and cannot countenance his tiny elfin wife to uncover. He cannot give her a baby and he will not give her a garden, and Matty is empty and inconsolable. And she is haunted by the apparition of a little girl in the garden, a golden child whose eyes, also, are deep with loss.
I am just about halfway through Consider the Lily; I am still pondering how Harry fits into the story; I am growing more and more sympathetic to Matty, who truly, poor orphan, deserves more and better. She reminds me of the girl in A Secret Garden–another pale and plain English girl, abandoned and unloved, who turns to a garden for her solace. I think of a book I read long, long ago–Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, where an unlovely street urchin finds herself in creating her own secret garden in an unlovely urban lot. This is, maybe, the same story, told again and again, with many different faces and in many different times.
I can see where gardening heals. To take a bare and ugly place, to fill it with beauty you’ve nurtured and planned–what satisfaction that must afford.
And there is that sense of rebirth–the hope of renewal even when all seems parched and barren…There is the whispered belief that, after this, spring will come. Maybe if we huddle patiently in the dark warmth and wait it out, maybe the spring will bring light and joy and beauty–and we can ever more enhance that beauty with the work of our own hands.
I see it; I understand it. I rub the balm into my hands and think about my gardens, and I know that, come summer, I will buy flats of impatiens and marigolds and thrown them into empty spots, and maybe replace the sad old rhododendron with a hardier flowering bush–I’ll ask Larry’s advice on that. Once I’ve planted, though, I’ll feel no compulsion to get out there and nurture and maintain and encourage. I’ll water when I have to; I’ll mow when it’s really needed. And I’ll save my admiration for those people, like Matty in Consider the Lily, who answer that deep, throbbing inner call, who roughen their hands in the earth, whose cheeks are streaked, whose arms are muscled and sinewy, and who call forth beauty from the space around them.
In the world of gardens, I am an appreciator. I like to think I’m needed, too.