Spring is just around the corner and around our house the gardens are coming to life. Even where it is more weeds than plants breaking the surface, it is always exciting to see greenery begin to push through the sun-warmed dirt.
Yesterday, I decided to finish cleaning up the Iris bed at the base of the flowering plum tree in our front yard. Last fall, I had separated most of the bulbs and thinned out the bed quite a bit, so it was lovely to see the shoots coming up this year! I definitely wanted to get the weeds out and build up the bed with some fresh composted soil and mulch. It was a beautiful mid-morning, clear blue sky and even some birds twittering away. As I walked outside and knelt down to start teasing little weeds from that Iris bed, my thoughts traveled back to an earlier time when she had likely done the exact same thing on a morning just like this one.
You see, this Iris bed was not always mine. There was another woman in another time who tended these flowers, and the other flowers around our yard. She nurtured the roses that bloom every year across the front of the yard, she smiled when the bluebells opened their delicate blossoms, and she probably muttered curses at the dandelions that seeded over from a neighbor’s yard after she tried so hard to keep her lawn free of them. This was her home long before it was mine and though she has been gone for many years now, her presence lingers in these gardens I love so much.
As I worked my way around the circular flower bed, my thoughts drifted back even further to another landscape item I grew to love, a monkey tree. Well, it started out as a stick about six inches tall twenty-four years ago now, but these days it is a strong tree with a story all its own. Pull up a seat for a minute and let me tell you about that little stick…
I was a young mother with a five year old daughter at the time, and my parents lived nearby. I had grown up in a gardening family, so it was never a surprise when my Dad called to tell me about whatever new plant or garden bed he had started. One day when the phone rang, it was Dad calling to tell me he had finally done it: He had gone out and bought himself a monkey tree! He had wanted one for years, he had found one on sale and brought it home, and of course he wanted us to come over and see it! So, I put my young daughter in the car and drove on over to see the new addition.
After the ordinary greetings when we entered Dad’s house through the kitchen door, he led us out onto the front porch to be introduced to his new tree. His excitement was contagious, and I found myself anticipating this new tree with a pounding heart. What I saw upon stepping out the front door was definitely not what I expected. There, in the center of a large whiskey barrel painted blue to match the color of the house, was Dad’s new monkey tree. He was so proud of it, I didn’t really know what to say at first.
It certainly had lots of growing room in that great big whiskey barrel. It was a stick. No, really. It was a six inch tall stick with no leaves, no buds, no real sign of even being alive, right there in that barrel full of dirt. My Dad’s smile took up his entire face, he was so thrilled. He assured me that though it didn’t look like much just yet, it was indeed a healthy little start and would one day be a towering, beautiful monkey tree. I took his word for it.
The following year, while visiting at Dad’s house, my daughter came running inside to tell me that the tree was growing! Sure enough, still right there in its sunny spot on the front porch, that little stick had grown a hat. There were four little spikey-looking things poking out from the sides at the top of that stick…which was still about six inches tall. But hey, it was doing something! Dad doted on that baby tree like a mother hen with her chick as a few more years passed…
By the time that little stick…er, um…I mean “tree” was four years old, it had thrust itself upward to an astounding height of about two feet and had two branches! Dad continued tending it carefully, and it remained in its sunny spot on the porch. Monkey trees are known for being extremely slow-growing, and my Dad was known for being extremely patient when it came to plants. It seemed to be a good combination, and both the tree and my Dad appeared pretty happy with the arrangement.
The spring that the little tree turned five years old, my Dad was no longer there to tend it. He had passed away that winter, and my Mom asked me if I would like to take Dad’s tree home to my house and keep it. That is how it came to reside, still in its blue whiskey barrel, at the corner of my front yard. I thought at the time that Dad would like it there, in a really sunny spot where everyone could see it when they drove up. There it grew for the next five years, growing taller and adding branches slowly but steadily until one day when I noticed a darkening at the tips of its branches. I called a local tree service for advice and was told that the tree likely just needed to finally be planted in the ground…its roots were out of space in the pot and needed more room to expand. All I had to do was dig a crater in the yard to drop it into and that little tree could have a new home.
Yes, I said a crater. The hole was supposed to be four feet in diameter and at least two feet deep with another foot of the soil loosened at the bottom. I remember these details very well because of the effort it took to dig that hole with a pickaxe and spade shovel in ground that had been undisturbed lawn for over forty years. Once I had the hole prepared, I faced the daunting task of un-potting the four foot tall tree covered with prickly spikes. There was simply no way I was going to be able to get that tree out of its barrel without tearing the skin off of my entire upper body, so with heavy heart I set about cutting the metal bands that held the barrel together. I pried the wooden slats away from the root ball and used my shovel to loosen the dirt and roots, all the while remembering how excited my Dad had been as he looked forward to this tree growing. The whiskey barrel’s blue paint had faded over the years and Mom had moved from the house the blue paint had matched…it was an end to a piece of my family’s history.
But that tree took to its new place like a fish to water and remained strong and healthy. I thought of my Dad every time I trimmed off its lower branches and checked for any bugs that would threaten it. And it grew. And I smiled.
Several years later, I sold that house and moved my family to a small nearby town. Dad’s monkey tree made the trip with us, lashed upright in the back of a friend’s pickup truck filled with dirt. Knowing the preciousness of his cargo, my friend drove slowly and carefully, turning a two hour trip into a four hour trip in order to assure safe passage for Dad’s tree. A huge hole was already prepared for it and though it was late in the day when we arrived, nothing was more important that getting that tree safely back into the ground. It seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as I stood there in the fading daylight showering it with a gentle stream from the hose. I tend to spend a lot of time in the kitchen so though Dad’s tree was placed in the front yard, we made sure it was visible from inside the kitchen window.
Eventually I moved from that house, too…but this time, Dad’s tree simply could not move with me. I was a little surprised at how emotional an event it was to leave it behind, having watched it grow from that tiny stick on Dad’s front porch into an established tree over ten feet tall fifteen years later. I still live not too far from that small town with a small white house that has a monkey tree in the corner of the front yard, so I can drive by and see it sometime…and remember how such beautiful things can grow from such humble beginnings.
Back to that Iris bed. Today it is bathed in bright sunshine, and next to it the rose bushes are budding with tiny new leaves. The weight of such a day as this is not lost on me. I only have these lovely things to care for because at one time someone else cared for them first. She planted them, watered them, and hoped for the best. She beamed when they blossomed and she brought some of the blossoms inside to enjoy even after the sun went down. Maybe she even talked to the rose bushes like I do…mumbling her thoughts and musing over day to day things with them as if they were old friends. Sometimes I wonder if they miss her, if they puzzle over who this new person is taking care of them.
People remind me sometimes that this garden is mine now and that it is fine to change things and make it my own. I understand what they mean because it has always been truly important to me to “set down roots” and have my home reflect the person that I am. I am definitely doing that, adding new plants and arranging things in our gardens a little differently here and there. It will be a joy to see everything grow through the coming years, remembering that one day I will be “that woman who used to live here and care for this garden”. Someday someone might wonder about me and whether or not I talked to the plants and got frustrated over dandelions.
Time marches onward that way, doesn’t it? My one hundred and one year old Grandmother used to be a timid new mother with a brand-new baby to raise while waiting for my Grandfather to return from World War II. Then my Mother raised a family, grew bumper crops of vegetables, hung laundry to dry, and ushered her children on to build their own families. My own children are now raised and I am embarking on the new adventure of grandmother-hood myself, amazed at how this story never changes much.
Oh, technology has definitely progressed and things these days move at lightening speed compared to when my Grandmother was a young woman. But the bedrock beneath our lives has not budged. We live surrounded by the past, enveloped by the experiences of those who came before us, whether through our own families or through others we come to hold dear. We cannot escape their lives intertwining ours and we can never really claim that we have achieved something entirely new. Someone else has done the very same thing before us, perhaps even leaving behind the tangible blessing of a living history for us to nurture.
Gardens are like that…if we calm our busy selves just enough and simply get really quiet inside, we can hear them tell us their stories.
In the meantime, I have flower beds and vegetable gardens to weed out and tend to…trees to smile about. These gardens here are mine now, but they were not always.
I remember…and I’m listening.
**Update: This article was originally written in March, 2014. Since then, my Grandmother mentioned here passed away in April 2015, more than a month after her 102nd birthday. She is loved and remembered by many.