Growing Closer Together

How gardening connected my mother and me.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA

My father was a hobby grower. At least he wanted to be a hobby grower. One year he decided to make wine from the grapes he’d grown on a trestle in the backyard. The resulting creation was a bitter, pulpy drink that he named Chateau du Puck, in honor of my involvement in little league hockey. He served the wine at Christmas dinner, where my Mom and one other adult choked down a glass of the stuff, grimacing like they were swallowing purple turpentine.

The following year the grapes didn’t return, as if in protest. Another year Dad decided to grow tomatoes. Every time he’d come in from inspecting the garden, he’d comment that the plants seemed to be taking too long to bear fruit.

My mom and I were living in two separate worlds, with little overlap and even less to agree on.

Soon after that, I stumbled across a red plastic ball in the basement, and an idea popped into my head. The next day I punched a hole in the ball and scrounged up a twist tie from the kitchen drawer. I strolled out to the garden and attached the ball to one of Dad’s bare tomato plants, carefully hiding the tie behind a leaf. When Dad got home an hour later, I joined him on his stroll. When we approached the tomato plants, he got excited and scurried into the stalks to check out his first tomato. He touched it gently, looked up in confusion, and then glanced back at me. One look at the grin on my face and he knew where that tomato had come from!

When I was growing up, Mom did very little gardening. But after Dad died and we kids were gone, she took to it with gusto. Where Dad’s efforts hadn’t been much to talk about (except humorously), Mom gradually transformed our yard into a lush landscape of ferns, wildflowers, azaleas, and perennials. The air became filled with the gentle buzzing of pollinating bees. A pair of rabbits made their home under the powder-blue rhododendron. The backyard now resembled a country estate. It was lovely.

But along with providing beauty, the garden also provided a larger function, at least for me. In her later years, Mom had gone from being a middle-of-the-road moderate to a far-right conservative. No one in our family saw that shift coming. Since I myself am somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, the range of topics that we could discuss suddenly shrank precipitously. I found my Mom and I to be living in two completely separate worlds, with little overlap and even less to agree upon. Our contact lessened over time and, in a sense, we started becoming strangers.

But we could still garden, which we always did when I visited during the summer months. We’d kneel in the dirt, silently pulling weeds or deadheading some blooms.

Most of my trips home involved such light gardening. But the summer before Mom passed away, I took on a Herculean task—trimming back the many trees and bushes in the yard. I knew from childhood that Mom was a ferocious pruner. She wanted her shrubs to look like they’d gotten military buzz-cuts. So one day I slashed my way, plant by plant, through her yard. By the time I finished the last item, a dying apple tree, I was exhausted and covered in dirt and pine needles.

I had set the pruning saw down and was looking proudly at the expertly trimmed tree—when I heard a voice.

“Oh, you can take way more off.”

I turned to see Mom a few feet behind me, wearing the jeans shirt and the Gilligan-style cap she’d had forever.

I laughed and said, “Oh, so we’re trying to kill it, are we?”

Mom chuckled and I said, “Remember when Dad tried trimming that oak near the house? Dad would cut for a while. Then you’d call for more. He’d cut again, and you’d call for more. He thought you wanted to prune that oak back to an acorn!”

Mom gazed off a moment. Then she grinned and said, “Yup, he could be stubborn. But he was a good man, like you.”

It was a touching thing to hear from someone who was so guarded with her affections.

An hour later—after I’d repruning that apple tree—we were sitting on the back porch drinking iced tea. I looked over at Mom with a serious expression and said, “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mom replied.

“That loud thump. I think the apple tree just died.”

Mom furrowed her brow a moment. Then she smiled—just a bit—and said, “No it didn’t.”

She would never have let on, but I knew she enjoyed these little foolish moments.

Yes, for me, my mother’s garden became a way to connect when most other avenues had shut down. I became much closer to Mom in her final years, and her garden played a big part in that renewal.

So this year, in honor of Mom, I started my own garden. Unfortunately, I may have inherited more than my sense of humor from my dad. I planted tomatoes a few months ago.

I’m still waiting for one to show up.


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