Charlotte’s Garden

Gardening calmed me—and my daughter.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

If I close my eyes, I can see my grandmother tending her glorious San Francisco Bay Area garden on a sunny afternoon. I am four years old, wearing an oversized bonnet and holding a little watering can.

As I water, I stamp my feet.

I had seen her do this on occasion (I didn’t realize until much later in life that she was simply ridding the path of a snail). It’s one of my happiest childhood memories: her tending and pruning her garden and little me sprinkling with my watering can and thudding my feet.

As I grew older, my life was pulled into darkness. Severe depression, self-harm, and wild behavior took over and seemed inescapable for the next 20 years. The final year of my grandmother’s life, I could hardly be bothered to visit her. I didn’t attend her funeral. I had forgotten about the garden.

Fortunately, the garden hadn’t forgotten about me.

We are an incredibly busy family. My husband works full time as a software engineer, while I balance free-lance writing and directing a non-profit. We’re involved in our church. Our son plays baseball. We both love to travel. I’m simply unsatisfied with lazy days. Yes, I know I’m running away. I have never stopped running from that darkness. Luckily, it’s gotten worse at catching me.

Our home is blessed with a large backyard, but it’s been neglected for years, lacking a lawn when we moved in eight years ago and remaining so to this day. Neither of us are green thumbs, and after working long days and chasing after two small children, watching Netflix just sounds more enticing than tending weeds.

Oh, yes, two children. Did I tell you yet about Charlotte?

Samuel, eight, has always been agreeable, easy-going, and up for anything. Our four-year-old daughter, Charlotte, on the other hand, is extremely self-willed. Once, upon discovering we were out of stickers, she used up an entire box of Band-Aids. Another time, she stripped down naked for a “circus act,” balanced a chair on the living-room ottoman—and jumped off!

It was as if I had heard another person in the room speaking—why in the world would I want a garden?

She’s a living doll with long blonde ring-lets and big blue eyes, but when she doesn’t get her way, she can explode like dynamite. On more than one occasion, she has cried and raged herself to sleep. When a request is denied, her voice can go from sweet to blood-curdling in a matter of moments. I sometimes get a headache in a specific region that is triggered only by Charlotte’s screeching whine. “Charlotte June,” I will say in an exasperated tone, “for the last time, put the blocks away. Now.”

“I didn’t take them out.”

“You and Sam were playing with them together. Please clean up.”

“Mommmmyyyyyyy! I don’t want toooooo!!!!! Ahhhhh!!!!”

Glory, I am exhausted most of the time. But despite her stubborn streak, what a beautiful little child she is. I often refer to her as our “little mama”—she has such a compassionate, nurturing spirit toward living things. A ladybug once set up camp on my car windowsill, and she spoke to it all day, rooting for its courageous trek down the interstate. (I waited until she was out of sight before I removed the dead little bug.)

She loves flowers and especially loves to pick them—even forbidden ones. She has plucked flowers from many public gardens when my head was turned, proudly presenting me with a haphazard bouquet of plant life that had been lovingly (and expensively) planted by a city gardener.

I see so much of myself in Charlotte. She has my sense of humor and love of whimsy. We both adore the color pink and often challenge rules. When I see storm clouds brewing around her, my mama bear instinct comes roaring out to save her. Charlotte is forbidden to fall into the darkness—I’ll never let her.

That’s probably why in the midst of a disagreement one day, I blurted out, “We’re going to start our own garden.”

It was as if I had heard another person in the room speaking—why in the world would I want a garden? California is on water restriction. I’m not a fan of Sacramento weather. I’m not much of a fan of the outdoors anytime. But as soon as I said it, Charlotte’s eyes sparkled, and her hands clasped together in excitement. I was locked in.

The end result was a modest potted garden in our front yard. We purchased pots, soil, and flower packets. Charlotte lovingly planted the seeds and faithfully watered them every day. The scent of the soil and stream of the hose took me back to my own days as a four-year-old. It calmed me—and it soothed my daughter. Charlotte became a very attentive mother to her potted seeds.

When the first one sprouted, she shrieked and danced around with a level of excitement previously reserved only for birthdays and Christmas. When her morning glories open up, lovely and purple, each morning, Charlotte smiles down at her accomplishment, breathing in the small patch of nature that is completely hers. To see her develop such patience and attention to detail toward her little flower family has inspired all of us.

The magic of my grandmother’s garden has been handed down to my daughter. Ours is tiny, not grand, but just those few flowerpots make Charlotte’s spirit soar. Mother Nature is a parent that doesn’t get derailed by depression, anxiety, or an overloaded calendar.

I am forever grateful that she adopted my child.

This article was published originally in 2019, in GreenPrints Issue #117.


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