I have never fancied myself much of a gardener. In fact, I might be the worst gardener that ever lived. I have no proclivity for gardening, no passion for it and nothing in the way of talent. No green thumbs here. However, ritually, every spring, I set out to tackle some type of approach to gardening in my yard. I have selected some shrubs that I really like – hydrangea and lilacs and roses – and I make a valiant effort of pruning and creating flower arrangements in pots for my front and back doors. And I do ok. Nothing spectacular. I am scrappy so I don’t too much research. I go by my gut and get drawn in to the pretty colors. I try to follow the directions of placing plants where they will get enough sun and make sure to space them far enough apart to grow to their potential. Invariably, I am cutting back wayward rose bushes and overgrown black beauties but I do my best.
Growing up, my father, an Italian immigrant, was the one who handled all the gardening in our family. Even though he and my mother divorced when I was young, I have memories of him mowing the lawn, planting shrubs, taming the roses and taking great pride in the manicured landscaping of our home. My mother could barely maintain a houseplant since she hardly ever let any light into the house. She kept the shades drawn because she believed there would be less dust that way (after all, the sunlight allows you to see the dust particles so she was able to fool herself into believing that if she did not see it, it did not exist.) I do not have that many fond memories of my father since he was not around all that much and, when he was, his drinking created an inordinate amount of chaos in our home. But, I do recall his work in the garden as something he was passionate about and it brings me warmth when I smell the fresh-cut grass or breathe in the scent of freshly bloomed roses. It takes me right back to being a little girl and standing in our small yard that was fenced in with the typical Queens chain link fence. My father managed to bring some beauty to our very drab row house. We had a corner property so there was lots of room on the side of the house to plant all types of shrubs and there was a large lawn in the front of the house. I remember my mother lamenting about this after my father was gone for it was a lot of work to maintain our property and I recall the days when the roses became overgrown and infected, the grass was tall and the shrubs were no longer perfectly pruned. The disarray of our gardens were a perfect metaphor for the chaos of our lives.
Yesterday I spent the day in my own garden, paring down my enormously overgrown butterfly bushes and trimming the lilacs that decided to bloom far too early and, as I do every year, I thought about my father and these tender memories. Last year, on my first day out in the garden, I was unusually angry. I resented the fact that I was the one trimming the roses because, in that moment, I irrationally believed it was the man’s job to handle that. That’s a pretty remarkable thought for someone like me who fancies herself a feminist and does not ever define gender roles in that way. But, emotions are a powerful force and mine resulted in irrational resentment and surprising nostalgia for a man who, otherwise, was not a very loving father. With every branch I snipped from my climbing rose shrubs, I longed for a man who would, like my father, take care of the important details like landscaping. In all fairness, my husband is pretty awesome about taking care of the outside of our home and, of course, my emotions had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the loss I was feeling at that moment. I was suffering from never having had the opportunity to experience a traditional father-daughter relationship and the only connection I could drum up was the one that overwhelmed me as I got thorns stuck in my hands as the large branches came down. The stickiness and pain that came with each thorn pressing into my skin was a reminder of what I lost when my father walked away all those years ago.
My father died last year and, in contrast to when my mother died, I found myself to be very emotional. However, similar to with my mother, I had been estranged from my father for many years – decades, in fact. He and I never had much of a relationship at any point in my life in that I was so young when he left and his alcoholism was so corruptive to everything in his life – especially his relationship with his family. He tried to forge a bond with me when I was in college but, after so many years of being told what a bastard he was by my mother and feeling alienated and confused, it was hard, even as a young adult, to bridge that gap. I regret that we never had that opportunity because I know, at his core, my father was a kind and loving man – and he and I were very much alike. Those who have known me since I was a little girl have always told me that all the goodness in me comes from my father – which makes it that much more difficult to accept the fact that he and I did not have a relationship. I would have liked to have known him differently and have had him enrich my life in positive ways. Alas, that was not possible for so many reasons – primarily because he was drunk for most of his life and was not that great guy that everyone remembered.
When my father died and I surprised myself with my emotional reaction, I spent some time trying to understand how I could feel sad about losing someone who never really was a part of my life – someone who caused a lot of pain in my life. I suspected it was because I managed to find a way to forgive him and release some of the pain I experienced. Or, maybe it was because he and I had a deeper bond that simply never had the opportunity to blossom. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that I sat with the feelings and allowed myself to make my peace with them.
Yesterday, when I was undergoing my annual ritual in the garden, I decided to make it joyous. I chatted with friends and then listened to music – for hours. I spend a large chunk of my day trimming, planting, mulching and found it calming and enriching. My skills are no better, my eye is no more sophisticated and I am not sure what results will be yielded from my efforts. However, I was at peace. I remembered my father with fondness. I thought about all those summer afternoons when he would put on his shorts and t-shirt and sport his white boat shoes and tend to the garden. Memories I will forever cherish.