Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Favorite Chair

In my garden, I have a chair. It's rugged, worn and really old. Next to it sits a bright yellow new one, but I prefer the sagging, worm-ridden one. My brother bought it for a buck at a flea market. Sitting in it, I feel its ancient strength at my back, and a kind of sun-warmed wisdom and solace.

My garden became a metaphor the moment it was created. It began in the waning days of my mother's life. She had long found joy in growing things. And as her body succumbed to illness, her garden flourished as if she'd transferred her own life force to it. Many of the plants in my garden were transplanted from hers and every season they come back and pay homage to her. The day she died, my brother and I went shopping for plants. We didn't know what else to do.

From my chair, I look at a flowerbed that I created on my birthday, shortly after our home was renovated about eight years ago. There, I planted a black-stemmed hydrangea, lovely old ferns that I transplanted from my grandmother's home, and a bush called a Sixteen Candles (appropriate, as I was wrestling with raising teenagers). The witch hazel I planted next to the stairs was but a twig back then.

Now, its branches grow up, and out, and wide, in a crazy every which-a-way fashion that just confounds my attempts to prune it. But this season from my perch in my chair, I noticed high over my head, the tip of the witch hazel’s furthest branch is just touching the tip of the branch of the old dogwood growing from behind my chair. In the dappled sunlit ceiling, their fingertip branches recall the iconic Hand of God in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

One season, I went crazy for daylilies. Those beguiling ladies dot the landscape and throughout June and July while their blooms play out in my garden, their names read like a poetry slam at the local library: Strawberry Candy, Elegant Candy and Buttered Popcorn; Lady Rebecca Staunton and Mini Pearl dance around Moonlight Masquerade, and don't forget the glorious Strutter’s Ball, Sue Raurbach and Spanish Glo.

Over many seasons, I’ve become obsessed with composting. I grind up my leaves in the fall, collect my grass clippings all summer, and horde the detritus from my kitchen waste. My brother and I even went rogue in our composting efforts. Cruising the neighborhood riding low in his truck, we’d sneak up and make off with bags of other people's yard waste. The rich scent of “black gold” filled with fat, wriggling earth worms still turns me on.

A few seasons back, I lusted for a raised bed to grow tomatoes, herbs and early spring greens. I could have bought a ready-made cedar box from a garden supply store, but instead I built one myself. I bought untreated pine boards and stained them with a recipe I found in a farmer's catalog, dated 1865: "Take boiled linseed oil and stir in its pulverized charcoal to the consistency of paint. Put a coat of this over the timber, and there is not a man that will live to see it rotten." (It hasn’t yet rotted.)

The year that I built my garden box, I was spending all my spare time in my garden. Throughout the cold months of December and January, I plotted and planned new beds, which I dug myself whenever the winter days were warm enough. I brought in huge stepping stones and with the help of my friends' teenage sons, I laid in garden paths. Everything was going as planned, when in February, a strange dimple in my left breast turned out to be cancer. And as if that wasn't enough, the right breast had it too, just a different kind.

I knew that summer, my gardening days would be numbered and as the date of my surgery loomed, I frantically planted, weeded and prepared the garden to a perfection. I remember the evening before my surgery in May. In a most inconvenient downpour, I finished potting my geraniums with rainwater cascading down my neck and arms and back. My friend, Deb, forced me to come in out of the rain. She ordered me to the shower and fixed me a cup of tea. That night, just as I had perused garden catalogs and built my garden, Deb and I poured over porn magazines. We were searching for a perfect set of breasts to show the plastic surgeon, who would rebuild my body.

After the surgery, I sat in my chair, I could do little else. And I despaired over not being able to care for my family and my garden. It was all for not. The garden flourished without me. I don’t recall a single weed that year. So did my children. They became young, caring little women that summer. It was as if I'd paid forward during all those years of nurturing.

Today, my garden is growing old with me. Seedlings are maturing into hardy plants. Saplings are becoming trees. The burgeoning irises and lilies and hostas will again need to be divided and dispersed among my friends. My mother's plants, too, will continue to bloom long past the day she planted them. Together this garden and I are gaining wisdom. To everything there is a season.
The Putterer

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