It goes back to my mother. Almost everything does. My mother is why I love black-and-white movies and Rosemary Clooney and show tunes and big, gaudy hats, though I look awful in them. Why I make Irish bread with caraway seeds. Why I thought, and think still, that no one will ever take the place of Johnny Carson. Why I don’t put new shoes on a table. Why, to this day, I wish upon the first star.
There was only one area where my mother and I were not in synch. And that was the garden. I didn’t like pulling weeds and getting my hands dirty. I didn’t like kneeling on the ground and getting the rest of me dirty. I didn’t like worms and spiders, touching them with the child-size trowel she bought me at Woolworth’s. I didn’t even like watering with the child-size plastic can that came with the trowel.
My mother? She was passionate about it all. She would come home from work — she sold hats at Wethern’s in Quincy Center — kick off her heels, cook dinner, then change into pedal pushers and head outside to work some more. That’s how I saw it, anyway. All work and no play.
I’d study her from our kitchen window, pulling weeds and planting seeds in what she called her rock garden, but what to everyone else was just a big ugly boulder with some scraggly plants trying to act as camouflage.
Maybe a few crocuses bloomed on that rock in the spring. And maybe some of the bachelor’s button seeds she spread in May blossomed in July. But there were no flats of flowers back then, or at least none that I remember. Plus, not much takes root in the crevices of stone. So, despite her efforts, my mother’s garden was never a thing of beauty.
But my mother saw beauty in every green sprout.
I’m that way now. It took me a while to love gardening and I might never have, if one day she couldn’t garden anymore.
That’s when I began.
Dirt on my hands and under my fingernails still bothered me. So I bought some gardening gloves. I wish I could say they did the trick, and from that moment on I enjoyed digging and weeding and planting. But I didn’t.
And then one day I did. My neighbor Katherine had a lot to do with my turnaround. She lived across the street and I would watch her from my office window. In the spring, her garden was a Monet: a blur of bright pink phlox, deep purple lupine, blue hyacinth, and yellow and red tulips. Katherine taught me not just the names of flowers, but when to plant them and how to care for them. She dug up some of her phlox, and told me that in time it would spread and brighten my garden. Full of hope, I raced across the street and planted it.
I killed it in less than a week.
I still can’t grow phlox. Or basil. I touch them and they wither. I can’t grow tulips either, because the rabbits eat them. Last year I bought a small rose of Sharon tree at some nursery in Connecticut. It bewitched me with its huge, red blossoms. We fit it in the car, I don’t know how, brought it home, and I planted it and cared for it as if it were a small child. I practically read it bedtime stories.
It died anyway.
Over the years, I have had more failures than successes. But it’s the successes that I see, that keep me digging and planting and hoping: the lily of the valley that’s now ground cover for half the backyard. The lilac bush that was the size of my arm when I bought it, that’s now tall and full and laden with flowers. The peonies that surprise me every spring, and that this year I remembered to stake.
I find peace in my garden and beauty and joy, all the things poets write about. I find worms and spiders, too. But they don’t gross me out anymore. Because what I love about gardening is not only being a part of life renewing itself, and not only how I feel digging in the soil, kneeling on the ground, listening to the cardinals and the chicadees, feeling the sun on my back, the wind in my hair, smelling the rich earth. I love, maybe even more, the constancy of it all. You dig a hole, you prepare the soil, you stick in a plant or a shrub or a tree, you water it, you feed it, and bingo, it grows or it doesn’t. No learning new rules every time you pick up a spade. No password required.
And the results are always, always perfect, even when they’re not. That’s why my mother saw beauty in every green sprout. And that’s why now, so do I.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.