My legs and assorted lesser used body parts are very sore from a day of gardening and painting. A very satisfying day - a "getting things done" day, but with the added advantage of it improving not someone else's life (I've been grading my teen writing class lately) or getting bureaucracy in order (emails, promotion, etc) but rather, directly affecting our lives, improving our home and connecting me, in the process, to the earth.
This latter part I would have never really experienced before. Honestly. I like lying on the grass as much as the next former goth-hippie, but my mother raised me by punishing me in the form of "helping her in the garden". She called it quality time, but it sure didn't feel that way, coated in mosquito spray and mosquitos, clamoring over her jungle of a food-producing former driveway cum garden, or tangled in the raspberries lining the back of her flower field, which took up half our backyard (the sunny part) and was forever in the way of our tiny badminton games. I hated gardening, I hated taking care of her houseplants when she was gone, watering her infernal greenhousery of plants out burning in the backyard summer sun. There are many pictures of me with all her flowers in the background - at the cabin, or home, in Appleton, and I am smiling in all of them, because that is what dutiful daughters do. But underneath was always the itch to get out from inside of her vines and claustrophobic British mock-up of a garden and go scamper in some open field somewhere. Not that my mother was a perfectionist - the gardens she always kept were a little unkempt, the kind of garden that would send my current neighbors running to the phones to report us for having any kind of weed-like cousin over an inch over knee high - but they were her life. Strangely enough, as much as I didn't like my mom a lot in my teens (who does like their mom a lot in their teens? It happens, but is rare, on average), I think now that I must have resented how simple and clear her relationship was to the garden, how it came before anything - before cooking or groceries, how it was her shrine, how our house had more warmth for plants than for me, it always felt to me.
Within a month of her death, I moved back to our childhood home and in with my middle brother, and, irony of all ironies, got a job at a greenhouse. I sensed, instinctually, it would do me good to be nearby plants. I learned a lot in that time - mostly that I hated retail and I should go back to working in nice, dark theaters - and on the top of the unexpected list (I've always hated the sun, so the darkness cravings weren't a big surprise) was finding out that my mother had, actually, treated her plants quite badly. I'll never forget going home after first hearing about "dusting plants" (their leaves can't breath if coated in dust) and being shocked to find that all the plants in the house were coated with the same crap all the fabrics in the house were filled with, too (my brother and I washed curtains we thought were tan to find out they were, in fact, white, and all over permeated with 20 years of chronic smoker-dom). I stayed up late that night, wiping off all the plants' leaves, and I still swear the oxygen rush I got as the hundreds of plants in the house gave off new found plant-exhaust in relieved thanks was like no jungle I have ever trekked through. It was really intense. Then, an even bigger deal, was figuring out that my mother had let a *LOT* of her plants, if not all of them, become completely root-bound. When I would pull out any plant at all, I'd see its roots had clearly been swirling into each other for years and years, struggling to find one last patch of soil to rest in. Some were basically all root. I felt triumphant and not altogether compassionate about this, and when I told my eldest brother about my findings he acted as if I had desecrated her grave (he was much more affectionate and compassionate toward her than I was at that point). I was attempting to do just that, I think, at the time. Not proud of that one, but what are you going to do? Teen angst, college sass and a lot of deeply hidden grief are a toxic cocktail for all involved.
I have always had houseplants ever since, a mix of my moms' (though I'd be hard pressed now to tell you which ones were hers), gifts from folks, leftover plants when friends moved out of town or out of the country. I never "gardened", but that was also part of apartment life. Friends talked about gardens and my eyes would glaze over. Even though I still loved fresh vegetables and went to farmer's market before the crowds got to me, I still couldn't fathom ever having my own garden.
Then, when Erika and I moved into this house three years ago, a garden was thrust upon me. The former owners had turned the smallish front lawn into a massive perennial garden, mostly natives, and it turns over in the seasons in a way I appreciated in a general sense, but hated to deal with in person. Every spring for two years we got it in order in a horrendous, over-worked weekend, and situated her sculpture, covering as much ground as we could so the weeds wouldn't take over. It was narpy, honestly, for the most part. This year, I got a craving to make it different, even if a little late in the season. Friends with big gardens pointed out that newspaper, lowly newspaper, in thick blocks weeds really well under mulch. I saved newspaper for weeks, eager to get going on the garden. And yesterday was great. I suddenly could see what was weeds and what wasn't (an old psychological block, as I am certain I must have ripped up my mom's favorite plants and gotten a reaming for it, numerous times), I could feel the earth and how ready it was to be clear, I felt a certain affection for the poor tulips that were overwhelmed with creeping charlie. And then the beauty of an organic but well-laid out garden kicked in, and I really enjoyed the results, too. All of it. I caught myself craving being back out in the garden when I was inside, grading. The weather was perfect - overcast, 70's, my ideal weather to be outside and instead of resenting the task, I saw it as an opportunity.
A few weeks from now, one of my students is moving to Canada, and I offered to take some of her houseplants, which she loves dearly and she wants to go to good, discerning homes. I feel more confident waking up today that her plants will continue to be loved here, not just resented, like I so often felt I was under my mother's care and like I continued to treat plants, with a great feeling of superiority, until really quite recently. This afternoon, Laine and I will plant our herbs and vegetables, and I will revel to have my hands, cut from weeds and tired from funny grabbing positions, back in the earth again. Thank god for change, for the softening of my heart and the soil, allowing forgiveness to come so late in the game - forgiving her, and, really, forgiving me, allowing me to move on from the solid rock of resentment and let myself enjoy gifts given to me when I wasn't ready to unwrap them.