Gardening for Mom

When she broke her leg, it was time for me to …

My mother is a Master Gardener: she received her certification from Michigan’s Wayne State University when I was a young girl. I remember the garden being her retreat from a stressful job as a nightshift ER nurse and a failing marriage. Whenever she had free time, you’d find her weeding, watering, or tending to whatever else the gardens needed.

I wasn’t blessed with the same green thumb as my mom. Gardening to me felt like a chore, probably because of all the times Mom enlisted me to help weed. She remembers my time in the garden more fondly. She loves to recall how I, as a small girl, roamed around her vegetable garden eating raw green beans straight from the vines. Indeed, my childhood nickname was Bean.

As hard as it was for me to garden, it was way harder that she couldn’t.

Her favorite story—one I don’t remember, but I’ve heard so many times I feel like I do—is from when I was 4 years old. She was taking a break, sitting in a lawn chair smoking a cigarette and whistling back and forth with a chickadee atop a pine tree. She’s always identified as a “bird caller.”

I let myself out into the backyard and made my way barefoot across the yard.

“Mama, are you talking with that bird?” I asked.

“I guess I am,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, matter-of-factly. Then I turned around and wobbled myself back to the house.

Well, I’m no longer bare-footed Bean, but a woman who’s now older than my mom when she sat in that lawn chair. Over the years, Mom has had countless gardens at various properties, from vegetable gardens to herb gardens to flower gardens to rock gardens. In the past decade, she even built her very own miniature greenhouse so she could propagate her plants indoors during the mood swings of Michigan’s Spring. I’ve always admired her fierce determination. She’s certainly not afraid of hard work. I think she welcomes it.

There is a saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well, as regards my mother and me, the apple fell off the tree, rolled down a hill and into a creek that emptied into a pond three towns over. I wouldn’t say I’m lazy … I just can’t be bothered if it doesn’t feel right for me. For example, I’ve quit every sport I’ve ever signed up to play, often in the most inconvenient and dramatic way possible. For instance, I called my softball coach and told her I wouldn’t finish the season. “Softball isn’t a good fit for me and my interests at this time,” I said. She was shocked but still somehow composed herself enough to muster a compliment on my agency. I was 13.

Last Fall, I was reminded of this difference in character between Mom and me when she fell while laying mulch in one of her gardens—and broke her leg. I was out for sushi with a friend when she called. Stepping outside, I took the call and said, “Hello!”

“I’m at the hospital, I broke my leg in the yard today.” She sounded like she was in pain.

“Oh my God, Mom! Are you OK?” Why do we always ask that even when we already know the answer?

“Yeah, I’m just in a lot of pain and I still have to …” and she listed the long list of tasks she wanted to complete, all seemingly irrelevant to me in the wake of breaking a bone.

It’s hard to think about your parents being the fragile ones. But there it was, and I knew the only thing for me to do was go home so I could physically help. I booked a flight that night and was home by the end of the week. I was instantly reminded of my inadequacy when I was greeted by her can-do attitude. Against all odds, she and my stepdad had rigged the whole house to accommodate her wheelchair. Doors had been removed from their hinges so she could easily wheel from room to room, pants cut to accommodate her new fashionable leg brace, and the kitchen stocked and rearranged so she could still cook homemade meals—from her wheelchair!

I hadn’t even remembered to take out the trash in my studio apartment before I left. Maybe I was there for emotional support, I thought, an equally important role and one I was much more equipped to handle. Still something in me, maybe that stubborn work ethic she’s always had, fought against it. I had traveled across the country to help make her life easier, and goshdangit I was going to do it!

And where better to begin, than with the scene of the crime.

The garden where Mom fell was a narrow flower border along the side of our yard. She said when she fell, she was out there for over an hour yelling for help. I thought about her laying out here alone and in pain, and it made me supremely sad. But tearing a page from her book, I stuffed my sorrows in a sack and got to work.

My first job was to pull all the weeds out of the garden. Of course, there were some plants she didn’t want me to pull. (Perennials, I now know.) She tried to describe them to me, but once I got out in the garden, they all looked the same to me. So I’d take photos of them and walk all the way back up to the house so she could show me which ones I was supposed to leave. Then I began hacking away. And you know what? It hurt! When I’d grabbed the hoe and a weed bucket, I hadn’t grabbed the gardening gloves. Who needs them? It wasn’t ten minutes before I slunk back to the shed and put them on—even though they didn’t match my high-waisted shorts and bikini top. (Neither did the blisters already forming on the palms of my hands.)

I weeded that garden for two afternoons. Fortunately, it rained on the third day so I could excuse myself from work without looking like a quitter. After it dried up, I gave the garden a final weeding, then began hauling bags of mulch from the shed, one at a time over my shoulder.

The garden is in perfect view of the back door to the house, so you best believe over the past few days I was being watched. There was also a lot of “backseat gardening” going on. Every time I returned to the house, my mom would have some sort of unsolicited advice for me. After all, she was the Master Gardener.

“You really shouldn’t leave the rake prong-side-up,” she said, as I wiped the sweat from my brow and refilled my glass of water. “I’m sure you’ve seen enough cartoons to know how that ends.”

“Gotcha, good point,” I replied while chugging down the water and starting out the door.

“Oh, and make sure you’ve pulled all the weeds up by the roots before you start laying the mulch. Otherwise, you’re just making more work come Spring,” she called after me.

“I know, Mom,” I hissed—softly.

On my fourth or fifth journey with the bags of mulch, I heard my stepdad’s tractor start. He rode down, scooped up the mulch pallet and drove it right to the garden. I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t. This was supposed to be my job, my contribution. So I marched up to the house to where Mom was watching from her back-door viewpoint. I wanted to explain to her that I was supposed to do it! That I was happy to carry the bags one by one! It was my way of being helpful! She didn’t need to ask him to help me or micro-manage my every move! Instead, I stopped short, looking at her wheelchair pressed up as far as it could go against the back door.

“This is killing you, isn’t it?” I said.

“It really is,” she replied.

We didn’t need any more explanation. We both knew—as hard as it was for me to garden, it was way harder that she couldn’t.

I finished spreading the mulch over the next few days. We actually didn’t have enough, so we had to get more. Once it was finished, I took a picture of the garden—the garden that broke my Mom’s leg. Not because it looked particularly good. (I’m writing this the following Spring and she’s probably critiquing my work as I type.) I took the photo because I was proud. I was proud that I got to finish something she started and reconnect with that little girl, Bean, that my mom loves to talk about.

Long as she doesn’t now call me Weed!

This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #135.


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