The first year we moved from downtown Toronto to suburban California, I felt the change in my life like a sudden drought.
The work opportunity for my husband was unexpected and, we decided, not to be missed. It would be an adventure and a change. But when the dust of the upheaval settled, I found I had lost friends to the distance, along with a sense of purpose.
My new path was unclear. After 12 years in a lively neighbourhood, raising my children among friends and within a busy village atmosphere, the empty streets and quiet yards of Sunnyvale, Calif., were a shock.
My kids continued to grow up, as they do. They adjusted quickly to their new life, flourishing in the climate and the opportunities for fun in the San Francisco Bay Area. I alone remained uncertain, unable to imagine how my new roots might grow.
On afternoons during that first year, I found myself staring into the yard behind our house, absently watching scrub-jays in the gravel. One day, when I stepped outside for a closer look at the rowdy birds, I decided to begin shovelling away the stones.
The yard was spacious, one of the purported upsides to our move, but it had been long neglected. Along one side stood a row of unknown fruit trees. The expanse of grey stone was dotted with a few daffodils saved from supermarket gift baskets, but was otherwise barren. At the back, a pine tree that seemed to die just as we took possession of the home dropped needles over an ancient deck pocked with rusty nails.
I began hacking through the rock-hard dirt beneath the gravel and gave up. Within a few weeks, though, I had spread a heap of compost and topsoil over it, worked them in and rolled out a new lawn. I had the dead tree removed and pulled out the old boards of the deck. In the process, I released the scrawny bulb plants from their scattered locations and tucked them together into sunnier spots.
Our first summer passed and into the first winter, the fruit trees grew great orbs of citrus - navel oranges, Meyer lemons, tangerines and limes.
Spring followed and I remained adrift, often getting up early, unable to sleep, and slipping into the now-vibrant yard at the back of the house. One morning, I stepped outside into a cloud of late-winter fog and waited in the stillness, listening for jays and mockingbirds. I had been picking mandarins throughout the winter and eating them with delight - right off the tree, we told our friends back home. When I reached my arm into the branches that morning, I caught the scent of citrus blossoms, marking the end of the winter harvest season and foretelling of warm, sweet-scented days to come.
I remembered that scent from the year before, when the yard was bare and mysterious in its rhythms and bounty. From that time, I had put so much of my energy - time I had spent in my old life chatting with friends over cups of tea and hobnobbing with neighbours at potlucks and parties - into this great square of my new life. I had created green where there had been none, pruned trees into flourishing and planted shrubs that introduced me to California's great trove of native flora. I had even made a friend of the widow across the street, exchanging harvest surplus and discovering pruning techniques together as she took over her husband's duties outdoors.
The yard had given back to me in those first empty months. It blossomed with exquisite beauty, even under my novice care, and promised to return season after season. In a place where friends were scarce and difficult to cultivate, the garden had become as valuable as any friendship.
But that quiet foggy morning, it gave me what I needed most to feel at home: a memory. The moment when I could recall that I had been here before, just a year ago and at such an uncertain time, was marked with a fragrance filled with hope and the possibility of a bountiful life. The memory triggered by the mandarin blossoms let me know that I was beginning to belong to this place and would find my way.
As spring arrived this year, I awaited the riot of blossoms on all the trees with a knowing anticipation, just as I will revel in the changing of the hills beyond my house from green to gold with the growing heat of summer. This year, I am planning to put in a vegetable garden where the old deck used to be, and I'm perusing books to find a hardy tree for the spot where the other one died.
Some evenings, my neighbour might come over for a cup of tea and we'll discuss rose pruning and the care of fuchsias, touching lightly on the changes we've undergone in our lives. When I catch myself stopping to stare out at the yard these days, I realize I am thinking of what is next for that patch of green. I am also thinking of what is next for me, because I am at home here now and am sowing memories every year.
Margit Look Henry is a Canadian living in Sunnyvale, Calif.
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