Muriel was a leading member of our suburban congregation, so at this pronouncement everyone silenced and turned to look at the object of her attention. Me. Momentarily stunned, I searched her face and mistaking my hesitation for modesty she continued,
“Growing up in a tropical PARADISE like that, surrounded by JUNGLES, vines, orchids, MONKEYS falling out of trees … why of course you’re a natural with nature! Gardening is in your DNA!”
A recent transplant to the Midwest, I was still unfamiliar with the cultural mores. Was she being sarcastic? Demeaning? Was this a side wink at the other ladies of the tea social, a subtle elbow in the ribs as she condescendingly put me in my immigrant place? Was it … a joke?
Gardening? Did she mean buying plants—okay, I’d done that a couple of times—or was she accusing me of actually digging holes and burying things in them? Like a dog? With my hands? On my knees? Squatted next to a pile of rotting manure?
Manila hadn’t been a “tropical paradise” for a long time and like most city girls my interaction with wild vegetation was limited. Not that I didn’t love flowers, but I’d certainly never organized any outside a vase and definitely not in the manner implied by the verb “gardening”. Quickly flipping through my mental database, I searched for something relevant on the subject.
My grandmother had a lovely garden with a wading pool. In one corner, surrounded by flowering bushes, was an alcove with a statue of the Virgen Mary. Walking past it once I saw, what turned out to be an enormous rat crouching behind Mary. I’d actually thought it was a cat and had approached in the hope of petting it. The brazen thing stared at me never moving a muscle and when I was just reaching out my hand I suddenly realized … that is not a cat. I ran to tell my grandmother and was scolded.
“La madre que te pario! You didn’t touch it did you, tonta?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Gracias a Dios! Don’t scare it! Es mascota de la Santisima y protegido!”
(Spanish parts: “The !@# mother who gave you birth! Stupid! That’s the Virgen’s mascot!)
My second gardening experience again involved a cat. I had moved into a new house and the landscaping was ongoing. Two days later one of my kittens, who had last been seen playing among the new plants, was in a coma. I mourned over his motionless body for three days until he miraculously recovered. He was never allowed into the garden again but did eventually travel with me overseas, have many adventures, and live to age sixteen.
Anyway, my point is that poking around in the dirt was a vague concept for me. I knew it happened … but somewhere in the distance. Very much like knowing that a steak comes from a cow and having the informational line drawn right there. It was clear to me if no one else, that I had no insights concerning shrubbery. Yet when Muriel insisted I visit her, and went on excitedly about how we’d do some gardening together and make magnificent gardens, I answered with a bright, “Absolutely!”
Why? I don’t know. I’m just that way.
A week before the big day I went to the library, pulled out numerous tomes with colorful pictures of flowers, and spent every minute memorizing their names. I’d never been as nervous, even on opening night of a new play. Would I remember my lines? Be relaxed on the set? Hear the cues? To further enhance my role, I bought a costume: straw hat, gloves, and a spongy thing to kneel on.
Muriel had an amazing home (one of several, I later discovered), with extended gardens wrapped around it. The first day we walked them was early spring, and it soon became obvious I needn’t have worried about my own ignorance.
First of all, there was nothing to recognize. Everything was dead. Bushes dried, withered and flattened. An expanse of collapsed decorative arches, bare trellises, and huge pots of Christmas fir tops gone brown. Brown, brown, brown. My most unfavorite color. There were no flowers at all.
Secondly, Muriel appeared to know even less than I did, referring to everything outdoors as, “that thing there” or the “whatchamacallit”.
Walking the empty gardens, she did reveal herself to be a woman of wonderful positivity. She’d had BAD news. Her long time gardener had abruptly retired and moved to Florida. But … this bad news had been almost immediately offset by much, much BETTER news. She had a new friend from a TROPICAL PARADISE, and with her help she was going to have better gardens than ever before! They would be amazing! There was nothing we couldn’t do! She had the resources! I had the “DNA”! We’d be a team! We’d make it happen! How could we not succeed? We would create our own tropical paradise right here in Minnesota! She knew in her bones that I was the right person for this vision. She was sketchy on the details but her confidence inflated me like helium into a balloon, so much so, that when she looked at me for affirmation and confirmation, I of course said, “Absolutely!”
My dismay at a commitment made solely out of personal weakness, was exacerbated by the quick discovery that “we” meant “me”. After leading me to a shed occupied by a tangle of rusty tools, she said she needed to make an important phone call and disappeared for the next ten years.
That first week I raked, turned, cut and pulled. All with one hand mind you, because the other one was holding a book of instructions. Cursing a cultural upbringing that discouraged speaking out frankly, I plotted continually in my mind, looking for a way out of this crisis, exploring desperate scenarios in which I contracted a disease, a relative died, my cat was kidnapped. It simply could not be that my life story would end in mud.
Then … a miracle. One cold drizzly morning, bending to scoop up another handful of dead brown leaves, something caught my eye. Kneeling and brushing aside debris, I uncovered a delicate wisp of greenness. Smiling sleepily up at me, it reached out a tiny finger, as if seeking to rise from winter’s bed. With too much to get done, I paused and then moved on, but the image stayed and haunted. The next day I hurried back to see if I’d imagined it. No, it was still there. A bit taller. A bit greener. Looking around, I found others beginning to join it. How had I not seen them before? In scattered spots, colorful little faces were peeking out like stars in a dark sky. My inner world exploded. This was not mud. This was mystery. This was not barren. This was alive. This was the earth awakening, pregnant with jewels.
It was the beginning of obsession; of countless hours in greenhouses walking slowly up and down the aisles, bending to read tags, examine leaves, smell fragrances.… I’d started with gloves, but as my lust grew I could no longer bear to have anything between us, and one day tore them off forever. I bought books, sent away for catalogs, minutely examined pictures of famous gardens. I made notes, drew diagrams and ordered plants from far places. That first year of discovery I bought anything and everything that caught my fancy. Much of it died because there were things I didn’t yet understand. Zones. Annuals. Perennials. Soil type. Whatever lived, I repeated and augmented, while always setting aside a portion of the garden for “hopefuls”.
A note here: I have never accepted the designation “weed”. Who makes that call? I refuse to define any plant as useless and ugly. Certainly if it is born there is a place and a reason for its existence. I was told buckthorn scrub bush should be cleared, but emotionally unable to destroy healthy bushes, I secretly trimmed and shaped them instead. Today in my own gardens, people always ask where I bought those charming hedge trees. I have covered difficult areas, steep embankments and sunless patches, with Dandelions, Lambs Quarter, Purslane, Chickweed, Creeping Charlie, Sweet Yellow Clover, Black Medic…. To me these are not undesirable, just misplaced. I think that perhaps finding your place in life, defines the change from ugly to beautiful. The painfully sharp thistle is, in the right setting, a glorious flower.
My letters to Manila, accompanied by grinning photos of me leaning on a shovel, sunburnt and sweaty, produced a surprise visit from my mother-in-law, Estrella. Exciting! Her own home in Antipolo, is surrounded by extensive gardens to which she is constantly adding new varieties of exotica. We could create together! Be a team!
When she arrived, I immediately put my new talents on display. I demonstrated the best ways to trim, tie back, splice, graft, pick out slugs, dead-head pinch and lay mulch. I showed off the organized shed in which I could name every tool. I dragged her to specialty nurseries to examine seedlings and buy sheep manure. I sought her advice on mites, molds, aphids and leaf cutters. I proudly showed her my designs for a decorative retaining wall. I explained the precious layers of garbage in my compost. Gesturing with dirty hands, I stomped around in work boots and flexed my muscular upper arms. When she finally burst into tears, I was convinced I had thoroughly impressed her.
While squatting on an overturned bucket and gently scattering my recent purchase of 10,000 earthworms, I heard her whisper in a fractured voice, “Anak, do you need money?”
Turning around to stare at her in astonishment, I replied “What? No! Why?”
She broke into choking sobs. “Is it my son’s fault? What has that gago (idiot) done? Just tell me! Sin verguenza! (Shameless! (him not me)).
It took me a moment to understand. Oh my ignorance! My thoughtless pride! I had forced a collision of planets, and the airborne debris had smacked my sweet, soft mother-in-law in the head. Estrella liked good food … but she would never dream of cooking it herself. It was not in her upbringing, her culture, her blood.
Dropping the worms and reaching out over my wheelbarrow, I took one of her dainty hands in mine and murmured the only consolation I could think of.
“It’s no one’s fault mommy. No one’s at all. It’s in my DNA.”