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The little bits of presence we leave behind

Looking closely for clues about the enigmas of other people’s inner worlds.

The ruins of a manor house in Ceredigion, Wales.FRANCESCA JONES/NYT

The colors caught my eye first — the pinks, lilacs, and blues that began as a soft, tonal blur in the margins of my vision before gradually solidifying into more discrete tones as our car approached, then passed, a house on our left. As the garden gently slipped from sight in the car’s rearview mirror, I thought of how well those shades worked together, and how well-chosen the planting was: Each shrub and every border flower was chosen specifically for the spot it occupied, every plant clearly considered through careful deliberation by someone walking up and down the rows of flora in a garden store.

Once in the ground, the plantings received endless hours of pruning, deadheading, spraying, and watering through numerous summers, followed by the cutting back in readiness for however many spring rebirths, each an increment toward what that garden finally became — a beautiful, harmonious blend of color and shape.


As we continued our drive, I noticed that this was no anomaly. There were many other gardens much like this one, each of them with its own story expressed through color, placement, and the years of quiet growth invested in every stalk, in each unfurling petal, and in the whispering undulations of the trees. It was then that I saw it, truly saw it for the first time, as though a curtain had been lifted, allowing me to see the backstage workings of a thousand lifetimes. Behind every one of these gardens were unseen hands that had undertaken this unhurried work of many quiet years. How many serene Sunday afternoons were sunk into those roots? How many stolen moments were garnered beneath the branches? How many quiet lives were going on each and every day, their days unknown and unnoticed by the majority of us as they racked up in the peripheries of the world?

These thoughts were still at the forefront of my mind after the drive, as my wife, Rachel, and I strolled through the sand along the beach in Swansea, Wales, talking about this and that, things unimportant to anyone but us, but our thoughts all the same. We watched the waves crash up onto the strand, then recede, time after time. The benches we passed, some occupied by others engaged in quiet conversations of their own, were all dedicated to lives that existed now only in bygone days, mentioning children, loved ones, and even, in one case, a champion boxer who had an illustrious career. The benches that seemed to say so much more than the others, though, were the ones whose dedications simply stated phrases such as “They loved this place” or “loved to sit here,” alluding to hours whiled away dreaming and making plans in front of the fierce beauty of sunsets, or watching the approach of storm fronts, passing evanescent moments with a sandwich and a flask of tea.


We made our way onto a looser, more timeworn trail bordered by the wonky posts of an ancient wooden fence jutting up like worn-down old teeth. But for the wire connecting them, a number of the posts would have been horizontal, or even detached, but their loose interconnectedness kept them as one, a just-recognizable whole punctuated by gates just as decrepit and dilapidated, their hinges rusted and their bolts seized. They kept nothing out, or in, these days.


“Do you think any of the dog walkers and strollers around us remember this fence?” I wondered aloud to Rachel, looking toward an elderly gentleman ambling behind his golden retriever, picturing him as a boy once more, brought to the beach by parents and haring away through the gate with an excited shriek as he tore down to the sea. Was this memory, or others like it, circling around inside his brain now, or was he simply wondering what to have for lunch when he got home?

I couldn’t answer any of the questions that popped into my head, I realized, nor should I. The quiet life that most of us live, just one among billions, is ours alone to live, to watch pass, and to fill as we please. That it should be an enigma to others is entirely right — the well-tended garden borders, the hyphens in grave inscriptions, the unsigned painting in the junk shop, the completed jigsaw behind the frame, and the cobwebbed fishing rod in the corner of the shed all tell the same story anyway, a story of quietude and peace that we all need to strive for from time to time.

“Maybe,” I said, “we are part of the ponderings of all these others walking here today. Perhaps they’re looking at us, walking hand in hand, and debating our story.”

“Maybe,” said Rachel, as we plodded on away into the morning, our footprints already eroding in the sand behind us.


Simon Smith is a writer and English teacher in Wales.