My sister tells me she could never understand why she’s drawn to gardens with white-painted rocks along the borders— until recently, when she came across an old snapshot that explains the attraction. It’s a photograph of the two of us in the wooden swing in our backyard. She’s maybe 11, which would mean I’m eight. We’ve stopped our play just long enough to pose for the camera. We’re wearing cotton sundresses and sandals; both of us have barrettes in our hair. Behind us, you can see my mother’s flowerbeds and the white-painted rocks lining them. I remember, after Mother put them in place, she was afraid they’d be a breeding ground for snakes, so we weren’t allowed to climb on them. Still, she liked their neat definition and kept them there.
How many of us work in our gardens—planting bulbs, training vines up a lamp post, cutting paths, defining edges—not knowing there is a strong pull to do things the way our mothers did?
This morning, I’m walking around my yard, planning changes, the way I do every year. Maybe I’ll plant something red around the willow oak beside the driveway, add a forsythia to the bed at the kitchen door, cut the ivy way back—and suddenly, I’m remembering my mother’s garden when I was growing up.
Spring at our house on Eden Terrace in Rock Hill, South Carolina, meant red tulips, thick and full, circling the oak tree in the front yard; blooms of forsythia beside the house, glittering like gold coins, or stars; my sister and I pouring bottle after bottle of Mercurochrome at the base of the dogwoods, watching the liquid seep slowly into the ground, hoping to turn the white blossoms pink.
Summers, my mother would make her way around the beds, on her knees, weed- ing, her hands fluttering in the ivy like small birds. Then she’d drag the hose across the lawn, wave it over her flowers like a wand, turning the water into an arc that crossed itself over and over. To reach the privet hedge in the back, she’d block half the flow with her fingers.
My own history with gardening is different from my mother’s and my sister’s. When my sister was really young, she dug a deep hole in the side yard, lugged home a bag of concrete from a nearby construction site, mixed it, packed the hole, filled it with water and goldfish. Newly married, she planted vegetables and herbs beside her kitchen door. Always, she had flowers.
The only time I got dirt under my fingernails was when I stuffed plastic geraniums in a window box that came with our side of the duplex my husband and I rented after our first child was born.
But years later, after our daughter and son outgrew the swing set and ball games in the backyard of the house we’d bought, I planted a mass of cream-colored daylilies. Then, tulip bulbs. Next came coneflowers, yellow yarrow, phlox. Then I bought some good pruning shears, began reading about soil amendment. And now, many seedlings later, I wish my mother could see me deadheading the Becky daisies, dividing hostas, making my way around the yard on my knees, weeding. I wish she could stand beside me on a hot July afternoon and feel the spray from my garden hose. I’d thank her for this wonderful thing she’s passed down to me, as we both squint at the arc of water crossing itself over and over.
Judy Goldman’s recent book is a memoir, Losing My Sister. She’s also the author of two novels and two poetry books. Visit her at judygoldman.com.