It is probably no accident that I became a gardener a few weeks after dropping Oldest off at college. I was surprised at how hard his leaving was for me. I found myself acting as I would have if he had died. I spent time in his closet, running my hand over the pile of tshirts he left behind, reading the titles on the spines of the books from his high school years, examining the mountain of change he had thrown into the metal tin I gave him. The only thing he took with him that even approximated a memento was his Page-A-Day calendar of New Yorker cartoons. I do not raise, I guess, the sentimental type.
Even though Middle and Youngest were still at home, I felt the loss of Oldest in a visceral way. He had been exceedingly independent in his last year at home, but even so, in his absence I felt as if I had nothing to do. Perhaps that is why, suddenly, I became aware of our yard.
About a year and a half ago, I decided that we had no business having a gardener come two times a week to take care of our small patch of lawn and the slope that runs down from our house to the street. I figured it was an unnecessary expense considering the fact that the house was populated with healthy humans who could easily take over the job.
"Easily" may have been a tad optimistic. In the ensuing months, Mate and I made a valiant attempt to get the boys to spend one hour every Sunday working in the garden. To be fair, on many weeks we did a bang up job. But all sorts of things seemed to interfere with the Sunday-is-the-day-to-do-yard-work plan: recitals, birthday parties, homework and, of course, holidays of all manner and stripe. Especially summer.
In summer, my boys have a habit of heading off to Camp. And then we as a family have a habit of spending a few weeks on Cape Cod. All this vacationing, while eventful and very gratifying for us as a family, wreaked havoc on our yard.
This fall, after dropping Oldest off at school, I spent a number of days – or was it weeks? – wandering aimlessly around the house missing him. One day I found myself out in the yard and finally noticed what was going on. The weeds were running the show. They had overtaken everything with a ferocity that was stunning. Almost all the non-weed plants looked as if they were suffering, personally, from the neglect.
Staring down the slope, I realized that it was going to take a lot more than one hour one day a week to wrest a garden out of what had become a vaguely Boschian scene.
But when I looked around to see who could help me with the task, there was no one in sight. Oldest was off at college, Middle and Youngest were at school all day and then, handily for them, had scheduled after-school sporting commitments that rendered them unfit for duty and Mate, well, lucky for him he has an office to go to.
I knew that if I went out there without some plan, the compulsive side of my nature would overtake me as surely as the weeds had overtaken the garden. I would work feverishly for a few days, maybe a week, and then get so tired, discouraged and disgruntled that I would just stop going out to the garden and the weeds would proceed to strangle every legit plant in sight. In order to not have my own nature choke the motivation out of me, I set myself a time limit. I decided to work on the yard for a half hour every day. No more.
It was on my first day out there, cleaning up a Heuchera (do not be impressed, I had to look it up in the Western Garden book) that had not been touched in a good two years, that I realized why my mother was a gardener. When you get really used to taking care of things, you can’t just stop.