Sunday, December 14, 2014

In winter, thoughts turn to the garden...

Here's something I wrote a while ago, for a call to write a "true garden story."  I just got home from my mother's 90th birthday celebration; the timing seems right to revisit this. 

My True Garden Story   by Eileen Brodie
 (written in 2008, published online in 2013,  In Memoirs at

Have you ever harvested a peanut butter sandwich from an ivy hedge? My mother has. There’s little that she has not seen, done, or endured when it comes to creating a garden.

Living in locations as diverse as Hawaii, California, or the Southwestern desert, a large part of her life has been devoted to cultivating a space outdoors. Her children knew that to find mom after school, you had to look in the garden. (My earliest baby picture was taken there; I was playing in pea gravel while mom weeded and planted.) Mom’s desire to be in a garden must be described as a happy obsession. Grand garden schemes took shape over time, everywhere we lived.

That ivy hedge in Berkeley, California, was as tall as the first story of our house. Wider than a car, it ran along the entire property and hid our yard from the street. When I rode my brother’s too-big bicycle, I used the hedge to do a controlled landing; my feet couldn’t reach the ground. Mom couldn’t see me do this from the kitchen window, so I got away with it. One summer, Mom and Dad did some hedge trimming. After some time, they discovered a curious cache. Deep in the bowels of the hedge were dozens of lunch sacks. These turned out to be unwanted lunches from our neighbor’s teenage son. For some time he had been stuffing his lunch into the ivy before heading off to school. I don’t know if my parents revealed this to his parents, it’s more likely they kept Martin’s secret. (Sorry, Martin, everybody knows about it now!)

One year, mom built a decent-sized pond out of stones. We’d help when we were home from school, but mostly she plugged away on her own at her pet project. Dad contributed by supplying stones salvaged from San Francisco streets being torn up near the waterfront. These had been ballast in ships arriving in San Francisco during the city’s storied past. Not being a fan of wheelbarrows or cement mixers, (and probably pregnant with my youngest brother at the time) mom’s method involved mixing mortar, one coffee can at a time. I can still remember the large blue can, mom’s hands gooey with mortar, and three more stones set in the pond wall. In the end, she got things done, however slow her method. Filling that pond with water was a well-earned triumph. We commenced jumping into the pond from the top of the nearby work-shed. Not exactly the zen-like scene mom had pictured while constructing it, I’m sure. Some time later, the pond was used to extinguish a burning mattress that dad had thrown from the second story window. But that’s another story.

The south side of that shingle style house was awash in roses. When we weren’t pulling off large rose thorns to stick on our noses in order to resemble a rhinoceros, we children generally ignored the flowers. The porch itself was more interesting: we’d play school, and pretend to be paratroopers by jumping to the ground with umbrellas as our parachutes. (Dad had been a paratrooper in the Army.) A childhood drama took place on that porch. Younger sister was found sitting on the top step. Nearby was a box of snail pellets for the roses. This juxtaposition led to the obvious conclusion being drawn, and our parents whisked her off to the hospital, where they had her stomach pumped. When they came home, sister cried and kept repeating: “but I didn’t eat them!” Her look of dismay was complete. This event all by itself makes a case for organic gardening, I think.

There was a time when my parents rented, instead of owning a home. This was during a few years' sojourn in Hawaii. Our first rented home in rural Hawaii came equipped with a pair of white geese. It quickly became a ritual to arm ourselves with a broom before going outside to face them. If that failed, mom had to put the toddlers into a tall washbasin outside of the kitchen door to protect them. This property was large and set well back from the coastal highway. One night, we heard a loud crashing sound. In the morning we children went to investigate. The accident had been managed by the authorities already, but the banged up car was still there. As the chore of lawn mowing was our responsibility, including walking to a nearby station to buy gas, you can imagine our joy in finding that the car’s fuel tank was completely dislodged from the car, and it was a full tank. We tied a rope to it and towed it to the barn. To this day I don’t know if our parents know how we came by that strategic fuel reserve, but clearly the passion for gardening was taking hold on our generation in a rather resourceful way.

Another rental closer to Waikiki became mom’s masterpiece. In spite of not owning the property, mom did her usual grand feats of gardening. Among other things, this meant lava rock walls, cascading stairs, a waterfall, and stepping stones. All around were plantings placed to create her own version of paradise. Plants really do grow well in Hawaii, but don’t forget this includes weeds. We had to beat back vegetation some two times a week to keep up with the growth phenomenon. The landlord was astounded to see a wild, eroding hillside transformed into a botanical wonder. The neighbors were confused as to why a renter would expend such energy and expense on something they couldn’t keep. Mom’s philosophy of living in the moment took precedence, she couldn’t postpone her passion. In the end my oldest sister was married in that garden. We have pictures to remember the occasion by, so really, we did get to ‘keep’ that garden.

Imagine the contrast when mom and dad arrived in the desert southwest of Tucson, Arizona. A hostile, barren background to the uninitiated. Any desert observer knows how wrong it is to assume that, and mom soon learned to play in her new medium. With cacti, palms, and grasses, the foundation plants were almost easy. The all-time favorite of bougainvillea put on a grand show. How interesting that its Achilles heel in the desert is not the heat, but the occasional winter freezes overnight.

With the summer heat dictating much shorter forays out of doors, mom has learned to scale back. The most recent obsession in her garden experience is with small pebbles and larger stones. It used to be that the perfect present for mom was a potted plant for her garden. This became a plea for rocks and stones of all kinds. She has spent countless hours sorting and placing mosaics of pebbles around her desert garden. It’s another way of finding retreat in the garden, something my mother has never failed to do.

Always one to share the joy of her various gardens, I think mom would say that even Martin, with his sack lunches all those many years ago, found a retreat in her garden in his own way, too.


from Beyond Prose:

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