Stephen

Cultivating a memory.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTOPHER REID

My father-in-law, Stephen, was a master in the garden. He planted bulbs, trees, annuals, and perennials. He took his time and did it right. My husband tells me about how he used to work with his father during the summers. His dad was a plumber, and they worked long days. They often came home for a quick lunch. His dad would make him pull weeds together for a half hour in his treasured gardens. My husband hated it: “Why spend so much time planting and pulling weeds when you could be inside with a book or the TV?” I kind of agreed.

One evening in late Spring, Stephen took me on a tour of his shade garden, just as the fireflies started to dance. It cascaded down a sloping spot in his yard and was shaded by a canopy of pines. The dark forest brightened the hostas and was the perfect backdrop for his yellow and orange tiger lilies. It was haunting and majestic.

Rocks embedded in the soil made perfect steps. Stephen followed them, slowly walking in front of me, his hands clasped behind his back, telling me about each and every flower. The solar lights led our way down the hill as dusk settled. I could see the labor of love in every blossom. That evening I decided that I, too, wanted a green thumb.

So when my husband and I built a house the following year, I spotted the perfect spot for my shade garden. I grabbed a rake and worked for a few hours while my one-year-old napped, then grabbed it again after putting him to bed. I was seven months pregnant with our second child and determined to have a garden like Stephen’s before my daughter arrived in June.

I drew a map in my head as I worked. I knew where the tiger lilies would go. I wanted cinnamon fern in the back and hostas along the sides. I would plant lily of the valley and forget-me-nots in little clumps and let them run wild.

The truth was, I knew nothing about gardening and had a nagging fear I wouldn’t put in the amount of effort a beautiful garden required. But I had to try. So I ordered the many plants I thought I needed.

They arrived the day before I went into labor with my daughter. The day after I got home from the hospital, I was out there digging, sweating, in positions I never should have been in. I had to get that garden done. I worked in a frenzy. Stephen was gone, taken suddenly by cancer earlier that year, and I thought that somehow I would stop missing him when this garden was complete.

I could hear my father-in-law telling me I was doing it wrong. My little scratches in the dirt were not going to cut it. He would have dug a proper hole, loosened the root ball, and added organic fertilizer. I had watched him do it and listened to his instructions, but I was in too much of a hurry to do it right.

As I clawed away at the soil, I was trying with all my might to remember my father-in-law the way he was the Spring night he led me through his shade garden, pointing out each and every flower. That was the memory I needed to keep. I was trying so hard to get it back through creating this garden of my own. He had inspired it, and I missed him. But no matter how hard I tried, the memory of the last time I saw him, frail and withered just one week before he passed, was all I could see.

I watered my plants a few times that Spring and Summer. My son and I would check on them once in a while while my daughter slept in her pack on my chest. I would pull a few weeds—and try to keep him from pulling up the tiny hostas or sole blooming hydrangea. It was a start, but having two young children didn’t leave me the time or energy to put much into it. Next year, I told myself, I can put more into it next year.

Yet to my surprise, the following year the garden took on a life of its own. Everything was full and vibrant. The forget-me-nots had spread like crazy, and the lily of the valley had poked through the mulch everywhere I looked. The hostas and ferns had quadrupled. It was so much more beautiful than it should have been in its second year.

One warm afternoon, I stood with my daughter on my hip as her older brother ran around the yard. I was feeling almost guilty about the lack of work I had put into this lovely and flourishing garden.

My son joined us. He started walking ahead of me, careful to step only on the rock path that twisted through our garden, his hands clasped behind his back.

For a moment, it was a late Spring evening, and Stephen was there, just as I had remembered him.


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