Essays: My Mother’s Gardening Zen

Gardening Zen

I have been gardening like an obsessed woman – planting basil and tomatoes, and adding more plants every chance I get. The garden is therapeutic — all of the sights and scents constantly triggering memories. I recalled my first garden that the mean, scary guy next door flooded by leaving his hose on overnight. When he found me crying over my floating corn seedlings, he said, “Corn attracts rats” as he walked by – his hate and disgust seared my skin – I was just a little greaseball to him. My mom helped me to replant the garden with zucchini. She was such a good gardener. In the summer after her work as a nurses aid, she sat outside in the evening with her red metal weeder, a brown grocery bag, a Pall Mall, and a hot cup of morning coffee warmed in a pan on the stove sweetened with one tablet of saccharin, hand picking the chickweed from her beloved dichondra. My sister’s Robin Trower record Bridge of Sighs trailing from the house fading into the warm summer night with all the windows open – a respite from the punishing heat of the San Gabriel Valley. Some summer nights were so hot that we slept on rickety chaises on the screened patio. The scary guy used to talk to her over the fence whenever she went out to work in the yard. She said she could feel someone watching only to find him leering over the fence at her. We used to tease her and call him her boyfriend. The handsome teenage boy down the street wanted to see her too. He used to come down looking for my dad every time my dad wasn’t home just to get a moment to talk to her alone – never thought to look for his car in the driveway I guess. But he was a good-looking tan, well-built, green-eyed golden boy and very confident – half Dutch and half Italian – we all swooned when he came over.

In gardening, she sank into her Zen and now as a mother I appreciate how rare and beautiful a moment that can be; the cool, soft, velvety clover grass cushioning her bare legs and feet as she left her slip-on Kids on the warm sidewalk. The streetlights glowed, the stars filled the sky, and the cat rubbed incessantly on her back purring and trilling. She found a moment to escape the constant worry, the anxiety, the abuse, the criticism, the fighting, the cheating, the gambling, the pain, and misery of the trap she was caught in. She probably never realized how attractive she became when she went there – her face softened, her shoulders relaxed, she glided when she walked – you could see what a raven-haired, black-eyed beauty she actually was. I loved that she would laugh at my stories of what had transpired between me and my sisters during the day while she was at work. It was there in one of those light moments, she agreed to let me keep a black stray kitten that she would have neutered after payday so he could come inside the house. During our conversation, he had managed to lie across her lap to make her pet him while she weeded and I knew she would have to say yes and let me keep him.

She must have been about thirty-six or so, and little did I know she would be gone less than a decade later. So when I garden, I often think of her, as a woman, as a person, and as my mother as I want to remember her. It is also why I keep mallows, bottlebrush, and elephant ears in my garden, so that a special part of her returns to me every time they bloom and whisper to me in the breeze that it wasn’t all a tragedy – it had its moments of Zen.

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