The Heart of the Garden

Rebuilding old bonds.

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Would you like to carve pumpkins with me and the boys tonight?” Instantly my heart rate jumped. Joel’s boys were six and ten years old, but although he and I had been dating a while, I’d yet to meet them. So the invitation felt important, like being taken to meet someone’s parents.

I’d been attracted to Joel from the moment I’d met him. We’d both been married before and each had our share of knocks. In particular, the loss of my son Brad three years earlier had left me empty and rudderless. I was drawn to Joel’s love for family and farm. It pulled me back to my own rural upbringing.

“I’d love to,” I told him. “Have you already got pumpkins? I could bring some.”

This morning I’m hoping that the sunshine may help warm more than flowers.

“What? No way! I have two Atlantic Giants right out of my garden.” My pitter-pattering heart almost soared.

That evening—the Sunday before Halloween—I parked in front of Joel’s ranch house and knocked on the door. I heard running footsteps as the boys raced to answer it. I was so nervous I nearly crushed my offering of chocolate chip cookies when the door swung inward, but their excited, shy faces gave me courage. Joel walked up behind them, his smile warm and welcoming.

Jake was the oldest and, with his bright, jaybird-blue eyes and dark hair, he was a smaller version of his dad. Jeeter’s eyes were also blue but lay under a cap of wild blond hair. I fell in love with them in that first moment, just as I had their dad.

“Look at our pumpkins!” Their voices almost drowned each other out as we walked into the dining room. Two tall, chunky pumpkins rested on a newspaper-covered table.

“This one’s mine!” they said in unison, pointing to their respective pumpkins and grinning.

“These pumpkins are amazing.” I smiled at the boys, but my words were directed to Joel. “They almost don’t look real.”

“Oh, they’re real, all right,” he assured me.

It’s now nearly fifteen years later, and the promises of that evening have been well fulfilled. Twelve years of marriage sit lightly on Joel and me. Jeeter is just home from his second year at college, and Jake lives a few miles down the road from us. They, too, have blossomed, even while growing up living between two homes.

This morning Jeeter has surprised me by offering to pay up his Mother’s Day gift certificate: a couple of hours in the garden. The offer had become a tradition—both boys knew there is no gift I treasure more (true, there were years I struggled to collect). But this year especially, I was surprised—and touched—to receive the handwritten promise.

Their older sister, Jillian, had gotten married last summer, and ever since then I’ve suffered the Arctic Chill with my three stepchildren. Because she had already gone to college when Joel and I got started, we’d never lived together and our relationship had been slower developing. But I got to be a real help during the wedding preparations. I was even invited to help choose the registry items, an unexpected honor that thrilled me. The fragile bonding ended when Paula, her normally distant mom, reclaimed her throne and metaphorically pitched me out of the castle.

We all met at the bridal shower. Glowing from our bridal registry success, I was taken aback when her mom was clearly the mom. I thought they were barely speaking. I was devastated. People were confused as to who I was. I ended up relegated to an uncomfortable corner alone, while Paula reigned as queen mother.

Afterwards, in an effort to gain sympathy, I wrote Jillian a letter. I said things I shouldn’t have said and ended melodramatically, “I see now I’ll never have a daughter.” After that, Jillian wouldn’t talk to me. Ice settled over the kingdom.

Was I really that insensitive? My only defense is that emotions were running high. It was a wedding, with a bride, a mother of the bride—and a stepmother. I was destined to be the loser.

Difficult as our misunderstanding has been and as much as I hope for reconciliation, the fact that both boys have taken her cue has been heartbreaking. They’ve become polite, but distant.

But this morning I’m hoping the sunshine may help warm more than flowers. And maybe if one heart thaws, more will follow.

Besides, I need Jeeter’s help. The east flowerbed is a bulb garden. In April it is gorgeous. Purple crocus and yellow daffodils push up early. Then red and purple tulips join in, making a feast of spring color. As they wilt, allium and hyacinth step forth.

But now, the end of June, the bed is an unkempt wilderness of yellow, brown, and green. And it’s become too shady under the leafed-out maple for my stargazer lilies to do well. It needs a change.

This is the perfect location for a patio with a fire pit. Years ago, I turned two stacked oak half-barrels into a water fountain, which sits on the south side of the proposed patio. What could be more perfect than the background music of a fountain beside a fire in the evening? The view to the east is a sloping vista of tilled fields. Warm summer mornings we can sit on the patio and drink coffee, and in the evening watch deer grazing in the fields. It will be the ideal spot to enjoy our rural bit of God-scape.

Jeeter eyes the project with skepticism. “You want all this out?” “Yes, I want a twelve by twelve patio. I think it can go right here.” I say this with enthusiasm in hopes of encouraging him.

I have a spade, shovel, and a couple of tarps at the ready. Jeeter grabs the spade, positions it at the edge of the browned tulip foliage, and says, “Here?”

I take a deep breath and nod. He steps on the blade and I hear it slicing into the gritty dirt—and probably a tulip bulb, as well. “I do want to save as many bulbs as we can,” I say a bit tentatively.

With surprising gentleness, Jeeter turns the earth and ex-poses the tightly packed array of bulbs. It is all I can do to keep up, sorting them onto the spread tarp. He is good helper, fast but not careless or impatient. After an hour the bulbs are up, sitting in clumps on the tarp. A sheen of sweat dampens his face.

He says, “I think you need to till it to smooth it out.”

“Probably,” I concede. My eyes go to the lumpy black soil. Ants are running in panic everywhere, and small bugs and beetles meander through the clods. I watch Jeeter head down the hill to the machine shed to get the Rototiller. I’ve never really seen him rototill before, have I? I can’t remember. We had done lots of family garden projects over the years—even entering vegetables in the county fair. I go inside to get cold drinks for him and me.

Obviously Jeeter had learned to use the tiller, because he’s now wheeling the giant machine up the driveway. Within fifteen minutes, the ground is smooth and dark. His face reflects his concentration. Tentatively, I touch his arm and smile. “You’re doing such a great job!” I want to hug him, but hesitate. He nods, his eyes and lips softening. I can feel Jeeter relaxing. Maybe he, too, is remembering other years, other garden projects. Maybe he’s been afraid I’d say something that would make him feel bad, or try to place blame.

A memory of my son Brad comes to mind. He always got angry when I made him help in the flowerbed. He’d stomp around as we weeded, planted, and mulched. Gradually, though, as we worked, Brad’s attitude would change, and he’d begin to chat a little, to get that glow of accomplishment. He’d relax and become happy. My heart clutches.

We hear a car engine—Joel and Jake have arrived for lunch. They look over the patio spot and make admiring sounds.

Jake surveys my now-silent fountain. “I’ll rerun your electrical for that after lunch,” he offers. The cord sticks out of the dirt where Jeeter accidently tilled it up. I’d forgotten the shallow trench we’d dug years ago to bury the conduit for the electrical lines. One of those roots the tiller turned up must not have been a root.

I’m surprised and pleased. “That would be great,” I respond. These boys are now young men with grown-up skills.

We troop inside and eat a quick lunch. As we eat, Joel asks, “Do you have enough pavers for that patio?”

“I think so. They are stacked at the back of the storage shed.”

“Then Jake and I will work on it this afternoon.”

Jake goes to get the skid steer loader, while Joel and Jeeter frame the patio area with railroad ties. Jake’s competence with the skid steer makes short work of adding sand for the patio base. By the end of the afternoon, the patio is finished. Three men—two young and one older—are flushed with pride and accomplishment. One stepmom-wife stands on an awesome patio, feeling loved and appreciated. Warm hugs and shy kisses seal the deal.

The heart of the garden, and of life, is family.

This article was published originally in 2017, in GreenPrints Issue #110.


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