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First Person The best marriages are a lot like compost heaps, and this is why

Sandi Falconer

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person looks at the ups and downs of love.

“If life is not a bed of roses, what then is married life? It may be that making a good marriage is like making a good compost heap.” And with that unorthodox thought, my dad began his father-of-the-bride speech, addressing the guests at my wedding. Outwardly, my smile was tight. Inwardly, I groaned. This is not what I expected when I’d asked my parents to speak at our service.

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My parents were always a little boho against the backdrop of our small suburban town. I’ll admit there were times in my adolescence that I wanted to pretend they weren’t mine. It sounds unforgivable and inconceivable; I so love them both, and feel nothing but immense pride at how progressive, self-sufficient and creative they were. But during adolescence? It’s a rare child who takes any pleasure in parental non-conformity! Back then, I wanted nothing more than to blend in with the other families – the ones with colour TVs, paved driveways, swimming pools, winter road trips to Florida and store-bought cookies in the kitchen cupboard.

My on-again, off-again love affair with the Leafs

We lived in a rambling old house that my parents were methodically (read: slowly) restoring. They reduced, reused and recycled before most people knew that was a thing. On garbage night, they’d bring back scavenged furniture, relishing the possibility of turning another man’s trash into their own treasure. Food was always made from scratch. Shiny, new things were rare. We three kids were permitted one daily hour of television (small, black and white, rabbit ears) viewed only after dinner: If we couldn’t peaceably agree on the selection, the privilege was retracted. My parents grew their own vegetables, tried pickling the acrid black walnuts that fell from our tree, and made wine from things that would otherwise go to waste. Like dandelions, that we three harvested from the backyard. It was a one-off (reportedly vile) experiment.

We inexplicably kept a claw-foot bathtub on our front porch. Dad drove a really, really old van (someone else’s trash!) that he’d body-filled with pieces of old washing machine. If you could see past the body fill and rust-coloured patches, it had once been bright yellow. I would always find a reason to decline a ride to school.

And, yes, my parents maintained a thriving backyard compost heap for their flower and vegetable gardens. Annually, it was boosted with horse manure, which I helped collect from a nearby farm (we drove to the farm in the patched yellow van, me slouched as close to the floor as possible, cheeks prickling with embarrassment). We mixed the manure into the heap with a pitchfork, while the boys next door peeked through the fence, pinched their noses and laughed their heads off. This, my parents decided, was a good father-daughter bonding experience.

Back to the church altar on my wedding day. Why, I asked myself, feeling a little panicked. Why was he talking about a steaming pile of waste? Why now? I was in a long white dress, my hair was coiffed, my manicured nails sparkling and pink. This was supposed to be “my perfect day” – something straight out of a wedding magazine. Now is no time for eccentric, hippie stories about decomposing kitchen scraps and horse poo. At this point, I braced myself as our guests began to chuckle.

And then something unexpected unfolded in Dad’s speech:

“A good compost heap takes some thought and restraint to make: Some things should be excluded from it – the sticks and stones of prejudice and intolerance, the rusty nails and broken bottles of preconceived ideas and social conventions. It is not what the neighbours think of it that matters – it is what you make of it that matters. It is your marriage.”

Our guests had grown quiet. My father was eloquent, the rise and fall of his voice gentle and expressive.

“Put into your marriage your willingness to listen, your ability to admit your mistakes, your abiding faith that your partner is in every sense your partner in the making of this compost heap. Put into it your disappointments as well as your joys, your frustrations as well as your triumphs, for with these included, the dull matters of everyday living can, in the course of time, become something quite unique to you both – for time and patience are needed also – do not neglect them.

"Water it, and feed it when it needs it, and it will not harm now and again to turn it over and bring to the surface things that have become hidden and suppressed.

"It is not dramatic, this compost heap of marriage, but if you do these things, the garden of your life will be a good one – one that your family and friends will want to visit and enjoy with you; the soil of it will be nourished and you will have abundance of flowers and fruits for many to share.

"May your labours be rewarded – for we love you both.”

Dad died this past spring after a long, difficult decade living with Alzheimer’s. Mom and I were by his side when he died. She remained his everything until the very end. And while their marriage was no magazine spread, it was their very own true love. They built it together, put in their disappointments and joys, their frustrations and their triumphs. It goes without saying that they worried little about what the neighbours thought. And in the end, they really did have many fruits and flowers to share. That was evident as I looked around the room at the grandchildren, children and friends gathered to honour them both on the day of his final send-off. The service was, of course, quite unconventional. There was dancing! And singing!

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At Dad’s send-off, my husband read the compost speech to our guests. And just as my father’s words had spoken to us on that day almost 30 years ago, they again spoke deeply to our friends and family as we closed his final chapter.

In the days and weeks afterward, several friends asked permission to read his speech at their own children’s weddings. We were surprised and moved. From endings arise new beginnings. Words live on. Wisdom presents itself in unexpected ways. What you make of everyday things matter.

Dad had just one request for his ashes: that they be sprinkled on the compost heap.

Sophie Howe lives in Toronto.

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