Jarad and I find ourselves longing for spring, so we're devoting Fridays to gardening. Here's a garden memory.
I have had and loved many gardens, from my first one in Memphis, where my boxer dug up the plum trees and ate half my climbing roses, to the haunted hillbilly house where we didn’t need curtains in spring because the wisteria draped itself in billows from the big oak tree out front. But I had one garden that, if I’m being honest, was hard to love.
It was the garden at our first house in Atlanta. The front yard was a hill that tumbled down and met the road which was an even steeper hill that slid right down to the woods by the river. Once a couple of soda bottles rolled out of the back of the minivan darted right down the driveway, turned the corner and raced right into the woods with me puffing behind them.
This particular house was new, a cookie-cutter house, garage in the front, like all the other houses in the neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses with small back yards and carefully regulated front yards. (I once got a note from the HOA because a disorderly vine slipped through the fence to make a pumpkin on the wrong side). The back yard was small, with a square of concrete just outside the sliding glass doors and a heavy, twelve foot retaining wall forming a solid boundary at the back of the the little plot. That wall was all you could see from the kitchen window. Above it,the narrow area between the retaining wall and my neighbor’s fence was wooded and scrubby. There was nothing much to recommend it as a garden.
Of course, this begs the question. How did I come to choose this house? This garden? The explanation isn’t a rational one, but I’ll try to explain. I was pregnant, tired. I’d seen three- or four-days’ worth of houses and I didn’t have any longer to look. When I walked into the kitchen of the house with the terrible garden, the rain started pouring down outside. For some reason, at that moment, with thunder snapping and the waterfall of rain outside, I felt the house wrap around me like a nest. I watched rivulets of rain pour from the retaining wall, and off the roof, and I knew how a mouse felt when it ran into a blackberry thicket to get away from a cat. I had a sudden feeling that I couldn’t go any farther and at least the house had kept the rain off my head. That moment of gratitude was all it took. We bought the house.
When I moved in, I realized my mistake. In the hot Atlanta sun, the timber retaining wall was dreary and blank by comparison, sucking away light. We added a privacy fence and the impression that the backyard was a wooden box was complete. We moved into the house in May and even though my daughter wasn’t born until November, I was already too round and cranky to do much about the blank walls. I planted pots and a few foundation plants, but every time I looked out back I was aggravated by my poor choice.
A few weeks after Essie was born, I decided something had to be done to take the edge off that view. My friend Kathy stayed inside to watch the baby, and I climbed up to the scrub behind that wall and planted a huge row of climbing roses. I dug out the earth and dragged bags of manure up that godawful hill. I planted about a dozen bare root white Meidiland roses to tumble over the wall.
I put in a bird feeder. I planted butterfly bushes all along the sunny side of the privacy fence. I placed more plants on the foundation. I made a bed for wildflowers and chrysanthemums alongside the fence. I planted the obstreperous pumpkins. But everything I did in that garden was to mitigate it, to make it quit hurting my eyes when I looked at it. All my gardening seemed only to make it slightly less awful. I held a grudge against it for promising me something it had never delivered.
That is until one September afternoon, a few years after I moved in. It was the first cool day of September. The kids were occupied, and I took a novel and went out into the little garden. The sun had heated up the timbers on the retaining wall and it threw the warmth back at me. The little peach tree I’d bought for a dollar at a yard sale shaded the book and shaded the small round table where I sat with my white teapot painted in violets. A pot of chrysanthemums next to me smelled like autumn spice. The pumpkin vine climbed around the corner of the fence teasing me with its escape attempts.
A chipmunk popped out of a hole in the retaining wall and nibbled on one of the roses in the white and green waterfall. Butterflies hovered around the purple and yellow buddleia. We were all protected from the eyes of the neighbors and the chilly wind in our tiny little world together. The little backyard was wrapping itself around me, warmth and scent and color, all the things it had promised me. And that is the day that I realized I loved it after all.