Gardening with Dieter

Did we save the garden? Or did it save me?

ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

In the weeks following my divorce, my once neat Toronto flower garden turned into a near jungle. The grass stood at least a foot high. Flowerbeds were overgrown with weeds. The whole place had a dry, deserted look to it. Standing in front of the window one morning, I saw two of my neighbors huddled together, looking at my garden, shaking their heads with disapproval. I knew it was a mess. But then so was I.

I wanted the garden to look nice again, but I didn’t feel up to it. I didn’t feel up to anything.

Even though our marriage hadn’t been the happiest one and I should have been relieved that the fighting was finally over, I felt sad and desolate. When we married, we had loved each other so much, We had been together for nearly 20 years. What had happened to us? What had turned us from lovers into enemies?

Five years into the marriage we had bought a house in a new development. The house was beautiful, but the yard was atrocious, a completely barren piece of land. Over the years we had planted and sowed, weeded and watered, until at last our garden was the envy of the neighborhood. And now look at it, a shadow of its former glorious self.

“Mom, we have to do something,” my fifteen-year-old son, Dieter, said halfway through his Spring school break. “We can’t have the place looking like this. Let’s clean up the garden and plant some things. Everyone has tulips and narcissus and those purple flowers—what are they called again?”

“Irises?”

“Right, irises. And we have nothing.”

“The garden is a mess, honey,” I said. “Nothing will grow there now.”

“Then let’s clean it up,” he said. “We’ll do it together.”

I wanted to. I wanted the garden to look nice again, but it seemed like such an enormous job, and I didn’t feel up to it. I didn’t feel up to anything. Some days it was an effort just to get showered and dressed.

Seeing his anxious face, I agreed to the job, but I wondered how the two of us could ever turn that wilderness into anything halfway decent-looking. The grass was so tall and there were so many weeds. It was going to take weeks to get everything done.

”Don’t look at the whole thing,” Dieter said when we went outside. ”Pick a flowerbed and concentrate on that. I’ll get started on the grass. Whatever we don’t get done today, we’ll finish tomorrow.”

So I did. I got a bucket and a trowel out of the garage and started on a flowerbed nearest to the house. As I dug, Dieter mowed.

Just weeding that one flowerbed was difficult, but seeing Dieter so hard at work, I knew I had to keep going. We were going to do this together, he’d said, so I had to do my share. After a while, I started to enjoy myself. Smelling the fresh-cut grass and feeling the warmth of the sun was a welcome change to watching TV all day.

At noon, the lawn mower fell silent.

“Done for the day?” I asked Dieter.

“Time for lunch,” he said. “Aren’t you hungry? I am.”

As a matter of fact, I was hungry, which was also a change. More often than not, I’d been skipping lunch because I didn’t feel the need to eat.

“You got a lot done,” I said over cheese and tomato sandwiches.

“So did you,” Dieter said. “That flowerbed is starting to look good.”

“It’s just soil,” I shrugged. “Without flowers, it’s not even a flowerbed.”

“For now, yes,” he said. “But we could go to the garden center and get some flowers.”

I nodded. “We could.”

“Do you want to take a nap or shall we carry on?” he asked as he put our plates into the sink.

To my surprise, I found that I was actually looking forward to going outside again. “Let’s carry on,” I said. “I want to finish that patch today.”

We went back to work—that day, the next, and the next. Every day we did a little. Once all the grass was cut, Dieter joined me in the flowerbeds. Some days we worked only an hour, some days we worked all morning, and some days—after Dieter was back at school—I worked alone.

I can’t say that I went through the days singing, but I did get up in the morning with more enthusiasm. I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner because I had an appetite again. And at night I slept like a log.

Once we had the beds ready, I went to the garden center. I bought roses, dahlias, asters, daisies, freesias, gladioli, and my new favorites—violets.

There had been a time when I couldn’t stand the sight of violets, when their cheerful faces mocked me and I much preferred the company of a weeping willow. Not any more. Now I loved violets. I planted them on either side of the driveway. They were my “Welcome Home” flowers.

One day in June, I was watering the roses when one of my neighbors came over and smiled. “Looking good, my dear,” she said. “You and Dieter have performed a miracle. You really brought that garden back to life.”

I glanced over the trees, shrubs, and flowers. I noticed the driveway violets bobbing their yellow and purple faces in unison.

I felt good. I actually felt like my old self again. It had been a long time.

I wondered, had Dieter and I brought this garden back to life? Or had it brought me?


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