In the spring, I remember my mother's garden. When I was young, I didn't know that it was special. I knew others thought it was, because of the awards from the city my mother proudly framed and hung on the wall.
To me, her garden was just messy, a jumble of colours and shapes without pattern. I had not yet been introduced to the concept of an English garden where there is pride in it seeming natural, as if it all just happened without a human hand. Instead, I saw only chaos that reflected what was inside the house - mismatched furniture and dishes, lots of shouting and powerful emotions.
To me it all meant immigrant. It was as if my parents had brought the shtetl with them from post-First World War Europe and transplanted it to Canada. The garden was a metaphor for all I was trying to escape. I wished for order, both inside and outside the house.
I wanted the family dynamics I saw on television sitcoms and imagined in all the Anglo homes that dominated in the 1950s. The gardens I envied had neat hedges with tulips and daffodils evenly spaced in rows of alternating colours. I was certain that behind those manicured gardens, no one raised a voice or constantly interrupted.
More than anything, I wanted to fit into the world I imagined.
I was embarrassed when my mother eagerly scooped up the horse manure left behind by milk deliveries to fertilize her plants. I was sure the neighbours disapproved and would wonder who had moved into the neighbourhood.
Years later, my good friend Marilyn enlightened me about the etiquette around horse droppings in her hometown in Newfoundland. Only if the horse relieved itself in front of your house were you allowed to take this most sought after prize for your garden. It was a valued commodity. This knowledge created the first tiny crack in my resistance to my mother's garden.
At the end of the summer, my mother would visit city parks just before the plants were pulled out and disposed of to gather seeds for the next year's planting, rubbing them between her fingers. This did not sit well with me either. No one else's mother I knew was doing it. I wondered if it was even legal.
On windowsills throughout the house sat jam jars with cuttings at various stages of taking root. I always walked slightly ahead of my mother, pretending not to notice her forays into gardens to snap off a branch of a plant she wanted to nurture.
I am not sure when or why my feelings about my mother's garden began to change in earnest. There was no one thing. My dear friend Judi, a skilled gardener herself, expressed wonderment when she saw the garden for the first time. She said it was lush, rich and sensuous. She pointed out that what my mother did instinctively took years of training for landscapers. She showed me photographs of the famous gardens of Vita Sackville-West in Sissinghurst, England.
But more than the opinions of others, it took a profound change within me to delight in my mother's achievement and what it represented.
I spent years searching for a world I knew little about but was determined to enter, one that was more refined than my parents' rural European ways. I thought I might be able to do so through post-secondary education.
I completed two postgraduate degrees and went on to teach Greek and Roman art. Strangely, I developed a particular interest in Roman emperors and their messy, colourful lives. I found myself able to convey to my students the exciting, often outrageous stories behind the serene white faces of the statues. Over time, I lost my illusions about the lives behind the neat hedges, too.
When my mother became senile, I kept her in her home as long as I was able so she could continue to enjoy her garden. Although she could remember little, she loved sitting there. She would occasionally point to a tree or shrub as if to show it off. Like a well-cared-for child, the garden seemed to thrive without her. It certainly got no help from me.
While my own gardening skills never developed, I did become interested in food, both the making of and the eating. My style of cooking has a sensibility similar to my mother's gardening. I have an aversion to neat and composed plates. I prefer big bowls and platters with food overflowing so everyone can help themselves. Herbs are torn coarsely and scattered generously. My one foray into gardening was planting basil in my mother's garden. Miraculously, it grew and spread so much, I could barely use it all or give it away. I guess that horse manure was still working its magic.
After my mother died, my husband and I bought a cottage up north with ample ground around it that seemed ideal for a garden. Not a garden of neat rows but the garden of my childhood. The perfect ending might be that at last I would find my inner gardener and be able to create my own magical place - chaotic and lush. But that has not happened.
I do wonder how my mother would transform it. Perhaps she would tell me to just leave it alone and let nature do its work. When I see saplings emerge in unexpected places, I am delighted.
Judy Gorman lives in Toronto.
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