As GREENPRINTS readers may know, we usually have to write our articles several months before they can be published. So right now it’s March—and I should be planting peas, as I do every year. By the time you are reading this, I should be picking peas—lovely home-grown, tender bright green peas. But not this year.
You see, at the moment I don’t have a garden. We had a bad house fire last December and were moved into a hotel, where we’ve been ever since—and expect to remain until June. It’s comfortable here, even luxurious, but I do miss my garden.
Since I was a little girl and had a square plot in the center of my mother’s garden (complete with a pudding-bowl pond and a green toy frog), I’ve seldom been without a garden. There was a time, though, when I lived in Rome with my baby son and we had no garden.
Or did we? Just next to the entrance to our building was a ruined Roman temple. They called it Teatro Marcello (“Marcello’s Theatre”), and it was a large open space scattered with toppled columns and huge marble blocks. Between the ancient stones grew thick clumps of grass, weeds, and wildflowers. Here we would stay for hours, I reading and my little son clambering over the ruins and chasing the feral cats that lived there.
These cats were regularly fed by an old Italian lady, shabbily clad in black. After feeding the cats, she would sit on a fallen column beside me, play with my baby, and teach me new Italian words.
Every afternoon, while the rest of Rome disappeared indoors for the siesta, our friend would appear with containers of leftovers from the nearby restaurants, mostly spaghetti, which she poured in glistening heaps between the old, old fallen stones. It was the high point of our afternoons, as cats of all colors emerged from the marble crevices to eat, and my son laughed and clapped. Once there was a sudden thunderstorm. The old lady leapt up, shook her fist, and apologized to the heavens for its cause—which, she cried, was our intrusion into outer space, and all the other follies of our “civilization.” Looking back, I see that the place that she shared with us was a special sanctuary, protecting her from the teeming city, where life was clearly hard for her. And after all, what is a garden but a quiet, protected space?
The baby is gray-haired now, and I don’t think he remembers our “garden.” But by a strange repetition of circumstance, my old dog and I, stranded in the hotel, have found a similar oasis, complete with a colony of cats, dumped by unfeeling owners. True, there is a notice forbidding the practice (as well as an admonition for dog owners to remove all “fecal deposits”!), but still there are about 100 feral cats—and, yes, there is a cat lady who feeds them.
We go very early in the morning, and mostly she is the only other person there. Snow, rain, or sun, we find her with her old shopping cart loaded with bags of cat food and bottles of water (she says the lake is polluted). This old lady is dressed in filthy jeans with the knees worn through by her metal leg braces. She seems to know all one hundred of the cats, calling them by name. Once one was missing, and she called and called. Once one had died and I found her in tears.
I give her a dollar when I see her and we talk a while. She spends most of her Social Security check on cat food, so my contribution doesn’t help much, but she seems pleased to have it. She told me she was an accountant once, so maybe she has enough for herself and the cats, too. She lives in her “ex-brother-in-law’s” attic—but clearly the cats are her whole life.
Almost every morning, as the sun comes up over the lake, we greet each other, and the cats slither out of the bushes, and my old dog wags her tail. Lately birds have begun to sing, and leaves are starting to green up. One day I spotted a bald eagle. Occasionally I see a fox. There are deer, of course, and often a motionless blue heron by the water. Very soon I’m expecting spring beauties and Quaker ladies to push up through the grass.
We sit awhile, I, the dog, and the cat lady. I give the dog a biscuit and the cat lady asks, “How are you doing, Hon? Are they fixing your house yet?” The sun glints on the ripples of the lake and gulls swoop over the water, and the dog wags her tail and the cat lady smiles and on the trees a few buds are already brilliant green.
What is a garden, anyway? It is, I think, a small paradise, apart from all the bustling and business we have created outside of it. It is a place of growing, of quietness, of allowing nature a little space. Gardeners don’t do well without such a place, but usually, if we look hard enough and are lucky enough, we can find solace somewhere.
Meanwhile, by the time you read this and I’m not picking peas, I will maybe be back in my own garden. It might even be possible to plant late lettuce and squash. We will see. But I’ll go back to the cat lady some mornings anyway—and sit with her in that other garden that comforted me so well when I needed it. ❖