Here in Texas the gardening season is just beginning. It’s time to plant early spring crops such as peas and spinach and carrots and onions. I’m late getting mine planted, but I have been digging a few rows a day for the past month – except when it turned bitter cold – and I will be ready to plant this weekend.
Gardening is in my blood. My paternal grandmother had a huge garden that stretched up the hill behind her house in West Virginia. When we visited in the summer, we could always find grandma halfway up the hill, weeding, picking, or cultivating. She would sqaut, sitting on her heels, and shuffle down the rows of beans, then stand and stretch at the end of each row. How she did that, I’ll never know.
When I’m out working in my garden, which is only a fraction of the size of my grandmothers, I try to hunker down to do the weeding, but am only able to make it a few feet. I’m sure the difference is due to the fact that Grandma spent hours each day working the garden. It was probably a quarter of an acre, and she worked it all with a shovel, a hoe, and a trowel. She also worked it well into her late 80s, and only stopped because she fell and broke her hip.
Thinking about the garden and my grandmother reminded me of this piece I wrote some years ago. It is now part of the memoir I have been working on, A Dead Tomato Plant and a Paycheck. Most of the memoir is focused on humor, but now and then it takes a serious turn. Enjoy…..
Pretty little flowers all in a row.
Not that year.
That year a few scraggly weeds lived in the spots usually reserved for the pansies that thrived early in the Texas growing season. Normally, when the sun burned too hot, the pansies would be replaced with petunias, then later with periwinkles. Those hardy little flowers can thumb their noses at the worst heat thrown at them.
Attending to this ritual of planting has always been an important part of my existence. Some days I’d rather be out digging in the dirt than doing almost anything else. The process feeds me deep inside in a way that defies articulation. But those who share this passion understand.
When it was time to plant the pansies that year, I was in the hospital after a complicated kidney surgery. The weeks recuperating at home ate up the rest of early spring when cool nights and mild days nurtured the ‘people’ flowers and let them smile to greet a new day.
My heart ached when I was strong enough to walk out to the front porch and sit on the swing. The empty flower beds looked so lost and forgotten, and I yearned to dig my hands into the dirt. I thought of asking my husband to plant something, just a geranium or two for a splash of color, but resisted the urge on two counts. He had enough to do with taking care of the kids, the house, and his job. Plus, it wasn’t the flowers I missed so much as the process. I could wait a few more weeks and still have plenty of growing season left. It lasts forever in Texas.
Petunia season came and went, and still the flowerbeds stood empty.
I’d had a bit of a set-back in my recovery. Some nerves had been damaged during the hours-long surgery and the pain was still incredibly severe. That forced another trip to the hospital to see if anything could be done.
By the time I got home again, we were well into periwinkle season and my flowerbeds had grown lush with weeds. My instinct was to lean forward in the swing and pluck out a clump of clover, but the look from my husband, rich with unsaid words, stilled the impulse.
I’m sure he meant well. Like so many spouses standing on the outside he felt so helpless in the face of my pain and limitations. He only wanted to protect me. But my heart yearned to be digging in the dirt. It was a deep and powerful ache that wouldn’t go away.
During my next visit to the doctor, I asked if he thought it would be okay to do a bit of gardening. “I’ll be careful,” I said. “And I just feel this great need.”
The man could have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting as he sat on his little black stool with one finger tapping his cheek. Then he spoke. “Personally, I think there’s something very healing about dirt. Although I don’t recommend eating it.”
He paused to acknowledge the smile with timing so perfect he could’ve been on the comedy circuit. “But I do recommend filling your hands with it. Smell it. Work it. Let it fall through your fingers. It won’t cure you, but it won’t hurt, either. And maybe it will make you feel better where it matters.”
Several hours later I knelt on the grass. I ignored the pain that ran down my side and into my leg and leaned close to the dirt. The trowel felt good in my hand as I loosened a small section of the flowerbed. Then I picked up clumps of earth and crumbled them, letting the rich black dirt stream through my fingers. I reveled in the cool dampness; the pungent aroma. Then I dug a hole big enough to hold a single Marigold.
“Ah,” my heart said. “Just what you needed.”