To the Celery in My Life

A tale of love and patience.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

In February I set a tray of soil on an old bathmat on the floor of my office and planted a line of tiny celery seeds. I gave the soil a pat as I stood up, switching on the shop light I’d finally figured out how to suspend a few inches above the dirt (by looping chains around the pole of a garden rake—the handle resting on a bookshelf and the metal tines flat on my desk, weighted down with my most beloved of books: the complete works of Harry Potter in German).

Celery! Held down at one end of the cutting board, you can chop the length of it in a flash, feeling yourself, for a moment, good with a knife. And those curly leaves! Floating on top of a soup, or chopped into lentils and fried up for falafel! And I would eat it raw, too, absent-mindedly crunching through stalk after stalk as I sat in my reading chair with my feet up on the armrest, the strings catching in my teeth.

I got right down near the dirt and squinted. Was it a tiny bit of fuzz from a green sweater?

This was my plan. Every day I peeled back the plastic wrap stretched over the seed tray and peered at the dirt. I kept my expression curious and nonjudgmental. Just taking a look! Sometimes I hummed a little. Whistling was even more casual, as if I just happened by, kicking road stones—no pressure!—but I’ve never been able to whistle gently, so I kept blowing the plastic wrap over on itself, never to be flattened again no matter how long I fiddled with it while calling “Just a moment!” to my son, who wanted help reconnecting the Internet, and who kept saying, to no one in particular, that we should just buy celery from the store for two dollars.

I felt the warming pad. Still warm. I felt the soil. Just moist enough. I tried to distract myself by planting three full trays of onion seeds—all of which would grow hearty and strong, and take over my garden, some swelling to the size of a baby’s head. They’d end up in crates on the basement stairs, where the sight of them would give me a little nudge of happiness every time I went down there, arms full of laundry.

After a month or so—Can that be right?—I noticed a little green something in the corner of the celery tray. What was it? I got right down near the dirt and squinted. Was it a tiny bit of fuzz from a green sweater? Was it part of a broken seed bead? I couldn’t be sure. After a week or so, I gave the green speck some fish emulsion, and although I wouldn’t bet money on it, I thought it grew a little. It could be a full seed bead now! Was it? I couldn’t be sure, and my son refused to let me borrow his magnifying glass, saying he “needed it for a project” (lost it in the grass behind the garage).

Then a mouse snuck into the office one night and ate the leaves off all of the broccoli and cabbage seedlings, leaving neat rows of stems behind. I surveyed them coolly, like a schoolteacher who’d expected better, and then rushed to check on the green speck, dropping to my knees before the tray. It was untouched! Relieved, I fit a heavy glass cake saver over it, re-planted the cabbage and broccoli seeds, and stuffed a sock in a hole I discovered in the baseboard. The mouse didn’t return. But I thought of him sometimes, a little fondly, I admit. I was proud of him for eating his vegetables, and if he was the same mouse who’d eaten that entire package of flax seeds, I knew he must be pretty smart. I wondered if I would see him someday, pedaling by on a unicycle he’d invented from paperclips and rubber bands.

Then one day, I noticed a little leaf emerging from the speck—and it was unmistakably a celery leaf. I felt good all day. I sang in the shower, I wiped down the counters after loading the dishwasher, and I stood for a moment in front of my garden, the garlic shoots just beginning to push through. I closed my eyes and smiled up at the sun, which was strong enough now to warm the front of my jacket. There was a hint of thawed dirt in the air, and I breathed it in deeply, hoping, as I do each Spring, I will still be able to smell it in a month, and knowing that I won’t—that this is the moment to stand still and smell it, really smell it. So I do.

And then the garden takes over. The lettuce bolts and both pairs of gloves get holes in the index fingers, and the wasps that fly around the oregano bush arrive, their shiny blue-and-black bodies long and scary looking, but they are as polite as ever, flying off together whenever I come near, and then: I remember the celery.

How could I have forgotten it? I panic for a moment, but when I pull back a bunch of kale I find it, now almost five inches tall and bushy, with a spray of sturdy little stalks the diameter of matchsticks. I take off my gloves to touch it with a bare finger, and smile, delighted. It has been growing for six months! I snap off a tiny stalk and eat it—not absent-mindedly in my reading chair as I had intended—but there in the garden, and slowly. It is gone in just a few bites, and it is unmistakably celery.


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