This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
“Mind if I join you, or are you doing your solitary writer thing?” My mother straddles the edge of the circular brick patio at the base of the side garden, and seems at once sincere and sarcastic. I had had my eyes closed for just a few minutes, so I’m not sure where she came from. “No. Go ahead.” I’m happy she’s come by. Usually, I feel disruptive when I corner her outside. Maybe she feels the same, I’d never thought of that before. Maybe she, a woman I’ve always taken to be strong-willed, bull-headed, and good for a kick in the pants when needed, maybe she always feels like she’s interrupting me. I’d been outside in the early evening before dinner just for the warm shade and the inaudible soft mists that touch my legs, coming from the two foot waterfall just feet away. The
Her Garden 1
smell of juniper—one that piggybacks several specific memories in my life—sweetens and clouds the moment to the point of blissful confusion. Squirrels perform Cirque du Soleil twirls and leaps on thin branches high above in the maple and oak canopy; sparrows, finches, and cardinals call themselves home in the waning hours of sunlight that begin to cool between the limbs and shadows. Mom settles into her chair without making the slightest sound, or if she does it blends into the hesitant rustle of leaves in a light breeze. I look at her by looking around her, into the garden we tended together when I was younger, and that I visit only twice a year now. I glance from butterfly bush to her flower-printed shirt speckled in dirt, from the manicured weeping spruce to her thick dark hair still combed in waves that blend into the criss-cross pattern of the black chain link fence behind her. The curved metal legs of the glass table mimic her recline: a head that sticks out a little from the torso, eager and patient to hold the world around it, the curve of the thickening neck back in toward a body that settles out around it, just wide enough to hold firm against the ground. Her tennis shoes—the sides and bottoms green from lawn mowing—give her the mark of being partly absorbed into something other, stained by some place, some landscape where I’d never been. In my mother’s quiet gestures there’s the nurturing quality of perfection, tinkering, deadheading the past so something new can bloom in its place. Her body might lumber, exhausted at the end of the day, but her arms settle like feathers into the chair, a walk, putting sheets of cookie dough into the oven—everything seems at once gentle and confidently precise as if she were a surgeon. “It’s very peaceful out here this time of day,” she says suddenly, but the comment blends into the pause between breezes and flighty chickadees whose feet are stuck into maple trunks. A moment later she says, “My favorite time of day,” hazarding a response from me, as the distant, Her Garden 2
clouded growl of a motorboat passes by down on the lake. I say nothing, but lift one leg atop the other to give myself the reposed, thoughtful and participatory look a person might have in a business meeting. She took the hint of attention without flinching, and without turning from her gaze over the hillside to the water. “How are you doing?” “I’m fine. I think.” “I mean,” she begins more directly. “I mean no more stomach problems.” I’d had issues with acid reflux disease that kept me from eating normally for months at a time and made me lose a bit too much weight. But her question surprised me. It wasn’t what I thought she meant, or was going to ask. “I’m fine. No more problems.” I say. This is the truth, and I knew she knew that. We both felt it wasn’t the question she wanted to ask. Every question has an imbedded or hidden question, and in my family that’s the one being asked. If you answer to the obvious question it also serves as an answer for the imbedded question no one is brave enough or forthright enough to ask. But even if you only intend, and believe, you’re answering the simpler more obvious question, it’s always, always taken as the other’s answer. Confused? It can all be boiled down to being asked, “How’s the chicken.” And by replying that it’s very good, you are also saying “I feel happy, content, and am glad to be here with you.” Maybe it’s like this in other families, but I’ve never seen one more concerned with innuendos, subtleties, and roundabout attempts at saying things other families take for granted—the “I love you” or “I have to get something off my chest” or “Can we sit down and talk.” Nobody just sits down to talk. So I knew she would understand that my answer also meant I was happy, that my life seemed good, that things were in balance in grad school and that I was living how and what I
Her Garden 3
wanted to live. But maybe her question was also one that begged for reciprocity, to be reflected back, to have a dialogue of questions with answers that nobody knew how to answer correctly. “How are you doing?” I ask, looking straight into the side of her eyes. “I’m ok,” she says smiling into the snow-in-summer circling the patio. Bingo. “Everything I’ve been taking has helped balance me out. I went to the doctor two weeks ago and he seems to be confident with the hormone treatment.” She pauses, tastes the sun flecked through leaves, which are like signs on a highway at night, or runway lights. “I’ve had no headaches this month, and I’m finally having some good nights of sleep.” She has been suffering for years from protracted and intense menopause, and it had literally pushed the family to the brink of annihilation. There was still much to be repaired in the wake of this, but it seemed that my mother—and my parent’s relationship—were coming back up gingerly from themselves, testing what it was like in the new life that medicine provided. Sometimes though, being back here in this house more as a visitor than a son, I have a doubly hard time seeing the real people that have made this world, this tiny existence—that have made me. I don’t have a clue of who my mother really is. I don’t think I ever will, but I’m resigned to having to pretend that I do, or at least to trying to find her, through the garden, through the natural landscapes that have come to define who I am as much as my mother. “I’m very happy to hear that, mom. Hopefully, you can start to live your life again.” “Me too. I just hope this stuff works and doesn’t wear off. It’s time to move on.” Not being ourselves makes us understand ourselves, who we are, more importantly who we want to be. Who doesn’t have a dozen cathartic moments after having had the flu for a week? After attending someone’s funeral? What kind of thoughts and feelings do you have after years upon years of not being who you are? Do you suddenly become someone else? What I want to ask is
Her Garden 4
this: Are you content? Do you still love dad? Do you enjoy each other’s company? Do you like living in Minnesota, in this house? Is this the life you want? Is this the person you want to be, and if not, what is that person and what are you going to do to get to that person without sacrificing what you have built till now? Is that possible? What do you think about what I’m doing, about who I am, where I’m headed? Tell me these things. I might be able to use them in my own life. “I can’t believe how that clematis has taken off this year.” That’s what I say. That’s my metaphor. That’s what I’ve inherited from my mother, and I think I detest it even as I recognize the power behind it—the power that has led me to words, to the skin-deep beauty of sound and rhythm, to how incredible words look on a page in a book, to how they feel… but never what they mean. Metaphor. “I’ve worked so hard on that thing,” she says. “I’ve spent years fertilizing it, trying to get it to stick, to establish. Finally, it’s grasped itself and just keeps blooming. It makes me happy to see it doing so well.” She looks from the clematis bunched up, thick, wildly fragrant and alive with dark pink buds and flowers, turns toward me, and then slides her eyes back to the thick trunks of the trees on the hill anchoring the entire landscape with their deep, complex fingers hidden beneath the soil—anchoring the whole garden, the house, this part of the street. “I think I’m almost done with the garden. Almost done all I can do.” We sit there for another fifteen minutes, undisturbed. The stream and waterfall going on and on, constant, decisive, furious and calming like a heartbeat. The light retreats from the garden to the roof of the neighbor’s house, steps up as if to see further than was possible in the low solitude of the world my mother tends day after day. The sparrows and cardinals and squirrels go on preparing for night, rushing toward themselves and their small purposes that
Her Garden 5
seem so profound to them, to us at this moment. My mother shifts her weight a few times over the course of ten minutes, her head and eyes as still and patient as stone. When she decides to get up she’s slow about it, as if she were conscious of the fact she’d left something behind, didn’t know what it was, but couldn’t quite leave without figuring it out. She walks in a zigzag through her garden, fingering a few blooms, turning over a few leaves, tossing twigs down the hillside before finally moving toward the top and past the side of the house. Somewhere between me and the plants, the shade and the sun, she saw what we’d been eluding.
© 2010 Benjamin Vogt
Her Garden 6
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.