The Stealthy Gardener

Why did my sister sneak over and weed her neighbor’s yard?

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

My sister’s immediate reaction to the news that her cancer has advanced yet again is to march three doors down to her neighbor’s yard to yank out the thistle that annoyed her all Spring. Having eradicated all the weeds in her own yard, Julie is confident this reclusive neighbor, purportedly an attorney, will neither mind nor even notice a bit of unexplained lawn order.

Determination is something anyone can notice in my sister. Martha, her next-door neighbor, observes Julie’s hell-bent gait and kindly pulls on garden gloves to join in. A born leader, my sister appoints her accomplice as lookout, to alert the perps in the unlikely event that this hermitic homeowner makes an unexpected trip home from work in the middle of a Monday afternoon.

Time passes. Then Martha suddenly announces, “She’s driving up the block!“

Time passes. Then Martha suddenly announces, “She’s driving up the block!”

“Very funny,” my sister retorts, tugging hard at an insidious root.

“No! Really.”

“%#@*!” Julie cries. Straightening to her full 5’2”, my sister’s mind races: What was I thinking why am I here what is my intention I only ever wanted to care for people how can you DO NOTHING WHILE THISTLE TAKES OVER YOUR WHOLE BLINKING YARD?

Down rolls the car window. Speechless, the attorney appears more burdened at having to engage than perplexed to find two strangers tugging at weeds three feet from her front door.

“Hi!” Julie blurts out. “I live just down the block, and, gosh, I hope you don’t mind, but I noticed all this thistle, crazy how invasive it is, and as a random act of kindness, I wanted to help you out by weeding your yard…”—and now I am utterly rambling when I should be home crossing names out of my address book so my siblings don’t waste time contacting people I was no longer in touch with.

“Oh.” The lawyer is as disheveled as her yard and as dour as a mourning dove. “OK.”

Up goes the garage door. In goes the car. Down goes the garage door. The busted do-gooders exchange wide-eyed stares of bewildered disbelief. Retreat seems prudent.

Retreat, but not surrender.

“My work here is not done,” my sister whispers to Black Jack Cat that night as he knowingly nestles himself around her patchy bald head. Two subsequent stealth forays later, said neighbor’s yard is as weed-free as Giverny.

A few days later, while weeding in her own yard, Julie hears a car in her driveway. The lawyer did not walk three doors down. She drove.

Down rolls the car window. Round-shouldered and doleful, the lawyer seems forever melancholy. “I want to thank you,” she says.

“You’re welcome! You must think I’m crazy, but gardening is very therapeutic for me, so I’m sure I get more out of this than you, and thank you for not—I’m Julie.”

“I’m Gloria.”

“I understand you’re an attorney.”

“Yes. I’ve been busy since Covid. Everybody wants a divorce.” Awkward pleasantries. Closing remarks. Up rolls the window. Away goes her car.

Perhaps only a 40-year veteran of oncology nursing, now on the receiving end of a devastating conversation she’s held a thousand times, can embody the triumphant grace necessary to cultivate something as ephemeral as a garden when she’s so keenly aware of being ephemeral herself.

Those drafted into wars they never wished to fight seem to have little control over their lives. Yet as Viktor Frankl observed, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

There is much to be done at my sister’s. Tending shade plants, Julie has one eye on the baby raccoons she rescued at birth, whom her feral cats have improbably befriended. Inside, umpteen letters of gratitude deserve one more read: “Thanks to you, we had seven more years with our mother”; “In saving my son, you saved my whole family.”

A few nights later, Julie concludes a hilarious re-telling of her thistle caper by exclaiming with a laugh, “I really, really hate thistle!” I laugh, as well, knowing that as long as my sister’s around, the weeds in the 14-house cul-de-sac of Stony Spring Court don’t stand a chance.

Take that, invasive species—inside and out. Take that.


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