I grew up in Southern California during the 1950s. My father proudly built our square little bungalow alongside several others in a row on Moorpark Street in Los Angeles. All of them were “landscaped” pretty much the same: a small strip of lawn, one ash (or palm) tree plunked into the center, and a few straggly gardenia bushes near the front steps. Occasionally, you would see a stray bird of paradise. And, oh, there was a lot—a lot—of ivy.
Our backyard was taken up with a swimming pool, concrete surround, and a little patch of grass where my father put up my swingset and where, for some reason, I used to make mud pies on the seats (to the fury of my older brother who sat on them). There was also an incinerator (look it up, all you people under the age of 55) and a detached garage with a concrete driveway. That was it. No one on the street had a real garden. There were certainly very few flowers to be seen.
But one day when I was 5 years old, new neighbors moved in next door and my small world was changed forever.
Within days of moving in, Mrs. Fortin was out in her backyard marching over the entire thing, carrying shovels, hoes, and a tape measure. She was wearing a voluminous flowered apron with pockets, a scarf on her head, and pretty, long gloves on her hands. Now my mother wore gloves, but only the short white kind on Sundays or for a special lunch. These were different—long, all the way up to the elbow. She was pretty, too, with reddish hair and bright, intense blue eyes. (To my very young eyes, she looked old. Now I think she was only in her mid-30s.)
Curious, I watched as she began digging industriously in the dirt. I personally loved digging, but had thus far been confined to my little sandbox (that I often had to sieve out because the local felines loved it, too) and my small patch of bare earth under the swingset. I hung over the chainlink fence (ubiquitous in those days) and watched, mouth agape, as Mrs. Fortin began making rows in the dirt: perfect, straight rows, using string and sticks to guide her. I could not imagine what she was doing, but I was fascinated.
A few days later, her behavior became even more baffling. She emerged from the kitchen door with a bucket of what looked like kitchen scraps—and went to the rear of the property, buried it in layers, then sprinkled the entire thing with water from a watering can. Man! What was all this about? And what next?
What came next was the day that she emerged from her house with the pockets of her apron stuffed full of seed packets. Care-fully, she made depressions in the now soft soil, shook a few seeds into the dirt, then covered them up with her hoe. Up and down the rows she went, sprinkling and covering seeds. At this point, although she certainly must have been aware of me all along hanging like a limpet from the fence, she looked right at me and smiled.
“Come through the gate, child, and you can help me plant the flowers,” she said.
I scrambled down and around through the gate. She gave me a few large seeds (they must have been nasturtiums and probably some scarlet runner beans) that small clumsy hands would be able to handle. She showed me how to dig a small hole and put a seed inside and cover it up. She also showed me the pictures on the front of the seed packets, so bright and cheerful, and explained how these humble seeds, tended carefully, would become the wondrous flowers on the packets. I remember being astonished and thinking this sounded unlikely. But I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was an adult, after all. And she was offer-ing me the chance to dig in the dirt, something I loved to do, and then maybe witness something that sounded like magic. I loved magic! So we toiled side-by-side, planting and watering, she with the hose and I with the watering can.
Then we waited. Waiting for a 5-year-old is not just hard, it is nearly unbearable. I would ask her daily, ”When, oh when will the magic flowers appear?”
She would just smile and say, “Wait.”
Finally one sunny day when I came through the gate, she held out her hand and said, “Come see what nature brought!” We ran to the garden, and there was a fine green fuzz all over the ground. Seedlings, sprung up as if overnight, were everywhere. But where were the flowers that I had seen on the packets?
Again, she just smiled and said, “Watch.” So every day, I visited the garden and every day, I witnessed the growth spurts, the tiny leafing out—and eventually, the fat buds that she promised held the flowers inside.
That Summer is the first time I learned about patience and how nature has its own pace, its own time. I will confess to secretly using my fingernail to open a few of the buds and gasped when I saw the hint of color and silkiness to come.
Finally, the garden matured into a lovely paradise of color and scent and movement. Masses of white daisies appeared along with glorious hollyhocks and delphiniums, spicy carnations and pinks, pansies with little heart-shaped faces and fascinating four-o-clocks that opened in the evening. We had also planted a lot of herbs (totally outside of my ken), and I was introduced to the delights of basil, thyme, rosemary, and lavender. So many plants that I had never seen, smelled, or gloried in before, all nourished by that pile of lovely compost I had seen Mrs. Fortin make.
Something caught fire in me that Summer. I realize now that Mrs. Fortin gave me a gift I have cherished my entire life. She introduced this city child, surrounded by concrete and asphalt, to a greener, scented, more natural world.
I have made many gardens in my long life since then and have greatly enjoyed them all. But none, I think, were quite as magical as that first one: Mrs. Fortin’s garden. ❖