Listening to the Garden Grow

The memories of childhood flit and fade with each passing year, with each hardship that demands more of my mind and focus. I can no longer remember how old I was when I first read this or first did that, but the memories from my childhood that are crisp and clear are ones of gardens. I remember that in my first house we grew pumpkins and melons on the side of our house. I remember playing in the dirt as my parents prepared the spot. I remember the soft and moist feel of the soil as my hands sank into it. I remember its smell. The excitement at seeing the first rounds of fruit appear on the vine is still fresh. I remember every trip to our relatives’ farms in Idaho, running through giant stalks of corn and climbing on mountains of baled hay, and endless rows of strawberry plants so full that I could fill a gallon pail of the fruit without ever taking a single step.

There is something therapeutic and reviving about gardens. They draw interest and excitement from everyone. It is that innate urge we humans feel to connect to the earth, from which new life springs and to which old life retires. It is the physical embodiment of our hope in the continuity of life, the evidence that life withers only to flourish again. Today, there are two gardens on my mind. One is my own, and one is perhaps the most potent garden memory of my youth.

For weeks now, we have been laboring to prepare our backyard for a garden. It has been a family affair. My parents have labored alongside my husband and I. My children have helped (we couldn’t have kept them away if we tried!) and even the neighbor-kids came over to be a part of it. It took 3200 pounds of brick, Lord knows how many pounds of good organic soil and mulch, multiple trips to the nursery and Home Depot, endless buckets of sweat, several delicious meals, even more delicious celebratory beers, and the combined tender loving care of us all to make this happen. I will post photos on here. It was a bonding effort, an undertaking that brought us all closer, and will remain one my favorite memories of my parents: them helping me start my own garden.

The other garden in the forefront of my mind is the one of my grandparents’ neighbor in the 1980s. Her name was Betty Eaton, and she had the most beautiful garden I have ever seen in a city. She was raised a Texas farm girl and found herself in Las Vegas as an adult, but always in her soul was a longing to connect with the earth. She grew fruits and vegetables and flanked and filled her beds with beautiful flowers. I remember walking through her backyard feeling that I had been transported into some sort of fantasy-land, a place that could surely birth tales of pixies and magic. My grandmother loved that garden. And as she battled ovarian cancer and we all watched her lose bravely, that garden grew and flourished in a way that Betty had never seen before. She told me that she believed that garden was for Dorothy (grandma).  

Years later, Betty wrote a book reflecting on her life, its joys and tragedies and centered her personal growth around her garden. The name of her book is Listening to the Garden Grow, Finding Miracles in Every Day Life. The book is a great read, and beautifully written. Betty and my grandmother were dear friends and Betty mourned her deeply when she passed. In her book, she dedicated a short chapter to her, and I would like to share it here. The title of the chapter is Dorothy.

Last evening, I visited my neighbors, Jack and Dorothy; they live just across the backyard fence. Not having fully developed their own garden yet, they check daily on mine with a proprietary concern. At least once a week, I take them a bag of fresh produce; they call me their “own private bag lady.”

This has been, perhaps, one of the most enjoyable summers I have ever spent. Jack and Dorothy’s obvious enjoyment of my garden’s vegetables and flowers has warmed me with delight.

But yesterday, I heard chilling news – the doctor’s report on Dorothy’s condition: terminal.

“I’m not going to make it,” she told me, tears filling her eyes. “You tell her, Jack. I can’t.”

Her cancer was accelerating, and her weakening condition was quite visible to my untrained eyes. We knew that she had cancer, but believed it was in remission. I was stunned, speechless. Holding her cold hands in mine, I thought back to just a week before when Jack and Dorothy had visited our cabin for a few days.

As she prepared for the trip, Dorothy had remarked, “There are three things I want to do this year: go fishing again on Blue Mesa, celebrate our fortieth anniversary, and see John married.” It had become obvious that she could not make the fishing trip to Colorado, so we invited the couple to come fishing with us in southwestern Utah.

That week, Dorothy sat in the bow of our small boat, gazing out across the rough desert mountains with a wonderful smile on her face. The weather was disappointing; it was rainy, cold and blustery, making the water choppy and very unpleasant. I, myself, was miserably cold and uncomfortable, but Dorothy was ecstatic.

“Isn’t it just beautiful? How can anyone not believe in God when they see this?” She hooked a nice little trout, and lurched forward weakly to pull him in. She was elated with her catch and the next day, caught another one! This time, however, Jack had to help her bring the small fish in.

Later that day, we returned to the cabin. The men decided to go to a smaller nearby reservoir and continue fishing. Dorothy and I sat on the cabin porch and watched hummingbirds battle for sipping rights at the feeder. We talked for hours in that easy, uncomplicated way friends do when there are no barriers between them.

We spoke of the joys we each had been given, and the great sadnesses we had experienced. The time was pure gold. If I never have another enjoyable day at our cabin, I will forever thank God that Dorothy and I had that one.

Now I must face the fact that Dorothy will not be watching over my garden much longer. When we returned home, she told me that she wished she could walk among the plants in my garden and see them up close.

She had never seen broccoli growing; mine were lush. Resting frequently to catch her breath, she walked slowly, examining each vegetable, while Jack and I held her hands to support her. Dorothy told me that when she stepped up on the concrete blocks Jack had placed for her in their yard to look over my fence, she felt that “I’m looking over the fence at Paradise.”

Each garden I have created has had a special reason for being. Some have produced ripe, luscious fruit; others have produced crisp, healthy vegetables. But the season of this particular garden was for Dorothy.

Dorothy brought to me a wonderful, memorable friendship I will always cherish. She added richness to my life that I will never forget. She and Jack were like the warm sunshine that makes the garden of my soul grow and flourish. I don’t know what the future will bring for me as I continue to tend my garden. But I do know that I will never again plant a garden without thinking of Dorothy climbing up on her concrete blocks, eager to “look over the fence at Paradise.” 

I look forward to teaching my children how to listen to the garden grow, and I’m so thankful to have built this garden with my mom, whose own mother looks on from Paradise.

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