When I was growing up, my dad made us a beautiful yard. There were flowers and roses, gardens marked out with stones, a maple tree, a locust. We had a vegetable garden and a peach tree.
Being outside in that yard made me happy. Even when I was angsty and bitter as a teenager, I’d still sometimes sit out in the backyard, surrounded by the beauty my dad made, look at the mountains and feel a sense of peace.
But I never once—not once—helped him. I didn’t mow the lawn, prune the rosebushes, pull weeds, rake leaves. It was all my dad’s project, and I can’t help but wonder why. It’s not even that he asked us to help and we grumbled about it. It was just never a thing we did. Never a thing I even thought about doing.
But one of my greatest joys in my adult life is having a house with a yard.
If I could have 8 back, or 7, or 12, or 15, here is what I would do: I would ask my dad if he had another rake. I would go out to the backyard, under the honey locust tree, and I would rake leaves with him. Maybe we would talk. Maybe we would work silently. Maybe I would ask him: How do you feel about this space? Do you love it or resent it? Do you wish we helped you, or do you like the solitude?
Tell me how to prune the rosebushes, I’d ask him.
Tell me how to keep the trees healthy, the lawn green, the daffodils still blooming every spring.
And if I had my 20s and 30s back, I would do what I did with my own children, except more often. Let them spill outside into the warm spring air, the chilly fall light, the heat of summer. Give them a little trowel of their own, teach them what is a weed and what is a flower. Call them over to admire a potato bug or a spider, let a worm crawl along their palm, celebrate the random surprise of a garden snake or too. Listen to them laugh, run, play, or just sit in the shade of the trees while I worked.
I loved those days—days they have all grown out of. Now, Kaleb mows the lawn but he grumbles about it; he rakes the leaves and picks up the apples but with deep sighs and not a few eye rolls.
Each of my kids have reached, eventually, that age when they’d rather be anywhere else than helping mom in the yard.
And maybe I can’t understand it because I didn’t ever have to do it when I was a kid. Maybe because it was always a choice rather than a chore for me, I can’t understand the annoyance.
Because for me, working in my garden hasn’t ever felt like actual work. It has always felt like a sort of relationship, a way to tell the world I love it. And a way it tells me back, too; the roses aren’t just roses to me, but a sort of friend. I prune them and fertilize them (and yes, sometimes I talk to them), and they take care of me by giving me color and fragrance.
It is about memory and connection to those who are gone, too. My dad gave me two of my rosebushes, and my dark-blue irises. A different rose bush, the one I planted near the maple tree just a few weeks after Haley was born, I chose because it smells and looks just like one my grandpa Fuzz had. I have purple pansies because one grandma loved them and a patch of purple vinca because a different grandma had them in her garden. Zinnias for Haley’s childhood, hostas for Jake’s; orange California poppies for Nathan and little purple snow crocus for Kaleb’s.
Sweet William and hyacinths for mine.
It’s a sort of alchemy, gardening. You start with seeds or bulbs or roots, add patience and sunshine and water, and then: color and fragrance, a thousand different frilly shapes. It takes work and attention, but it’s a joyful sort for me. I thought flowers were magic when I was a kid and deep down, I still do.
This weekend I spent some morning hours in my yard, raking leaves. I trimmed out the dead asters, I encouraged my poppy which might just bloom a second time this year. I deadheaded a bit. I thought about myself, when I was five and six and loved picking all of the rose petals off of Grandpa Fuzz’s flowers to make cakes for fairies. They aren’t people, of course. They can’t love me back or tell me their stories with words. But they lift my heart—my trees, my flowers. They give me hope. They remind me that there is beauty still left in this world for now. It’s November and some of them are still blooming and I know that is evidence of the way we damage the world, but what can I do? Besides mulch, besides yank away the bindweed, besides stop and appreciate the sheer, remarkable beauty of light through a petal. Besides care for my tiny piece of the world, and relish the care it returns to me.
I always want flowers.