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Summer’s here and Canada-wide, tomatoes are in the ground, mine included.
I live alone now, and at 61 years of age, I have little need for all the food I grow. But I do love my own produce, my pesto made with home-grown garlic and basil, which lasts me into the following summer.
I have been thinking of my connection to the land, of closely observing the daily, seasonal and yearly changes that occur. I like that every day something is happening: Another rhododendron opening its buds, the daffodils dying back, the asparagus poking out of the ground, the hummingbird flying past to the flowering red currant, beetles mating.
New plants pop up unexpectedly, their seed carried by the wind or somehow miraculously spreading from one part of the yard to another.
I like the wind in my hair and the warmth of the sun and squatting as I tend to something. I am intentionally alive, no small miracle.
Gardening has seen me through two marital separations and the suicides of my identical-twin adult daughters, almost seven years apart. The most recent death was in November, 2011. I lay on the couch for weeks, keeping the wood stove going, fed by friends. Everything was bleak outside; the November rains drowned the fallen leaves from my maple trees and the desolation of winter matched my mood. Occasionally I would summon the energy for a chore: spreading three yards of mulch I’d had delivered, raking, tidying the shed and greenhouse.
As the winter months passed, I wondered if I had lost my passion to garden, if I would be able to summon the energy or interest.
I have a third of an acre to maintain, and at some point I won’t be able to. But the real question was, what was the point, that old existential question. Why bother? What did I have to live for?
Why was I still here when all three of my children were dead (my first child drowned at 10 months of age)? Who am I, now that I am no longer a mother? How do I even answer that question to myself or to anyone else that asks me if I have children or grandchildren?
When spring arrived in its splendour, I’d look out my bathroom window to the far side of the yard, where I’d planted a Japanese maple last October, for its fall colours. Its deeply palmate leaves began to unfold. And I mustered the energy to get outside and begin the massive spring cleanup before everything – weeds included – exploded.
As one of my work colleagues so succinctly said, “You get dressed, put on your shoes and show up.” I’d amend that to, “Put on your gloves.” Life was moving on, with or without me.
So I’ve done what I always do. I took my usual gardening week off in May, and I’ll take my usual week in October, for fall cleanup.
While I clip, as I’m doing this morning, not using a weed-whacker but old garden clippers much like my dad used, I talk to myself and I talk to my kids. And I grieve. Many tears.
When I told my remaining daughter, early in my mourning for her sister, that I frequently talked to her sister, she wondered if her father and I were both crazy, because we both did that. No, I told her, it keeps me sane. And so I talk, every day, frequently. I tell my daughters how much I miss them. I tell them that I understand their choice, but that I am bereft and it’s difficult for me without them.
Everyone asks me how I’m managing, sometimes looking deeply into my eyes.
Okay, I guess, all things considered, I answer. Do you really want to know? Not really. Do you want to know how many times I go to the dark side, questioning whether I should join my children?
Then I tell myself, I cannot do that. I remind myself that I have value and that I am still loved, even when I cannot love myself. I say to my girls that I do not have their courage for dying, that I am trying to maintain my courage for living.
Gardening helps keep me going – enormously. It is one of two main healing things I do to cope (the other is singing in a choir).
I look around at the results of my partnership with nature. I’ve put 10 years of effort into my gardens. Certain areas really please me. I remember the trips I made bringing driftwood home and the gulf islands I visited collecting a few flat stones for a garden border.
I’ve brought plants from my late dad’s garden at his cottage near Eganville, Ont., and irises from my ex-partner’s grandmother’s house in Sarnia.
Many plants have been given to me by other gardeners. Some survive, some don’t. I’m always learning, and I like that. And there is always something to do, some area I haven’t gotten to yet. Even when I feel I cannot manage any more, getting out the door and unlocking the shed gets me in motion.
This year, I will still give garlic to my daughter’s partner and share my food. I can give back a little to all the people who supported me in those dark weeks after her death. I am grateful I live where I can grow food and please myself, if only for a moment when I arrive home after work and enjoy the visual feast.
Katie Stewart lives in Duncan, B.C.