We live in a small city and tend a shady backyard the size of two Ford Explorers. Half of the yard is covered in paving stones, and the other half is grass. We buy sod each year, roll it out and water it. It lasts through mid-September and inexplicably dies. My five-year-old thinks that grass is an annual that comes in rolls like toilet paper. But he also knows that peas come in pods and potatoes must be dug out of the ground. At least once a week, I pull our tools and Jake in a red radio flyer wagon to a sunny community garden plot one block from home. We don’t grow prize-winning tea roses. We play in the dirt, and bury seeds, wait for them to sprout, and ask questions: “Will it grow to the sky like in Jack and the Beanstalk?” “Will it be red?” and most importantly, “How does it taste?”
Jake and I live a parallel life in the garden, one with more wonder and less stress. The short trip in the wagon brings us miles away from our normal lives. The same mommy who screeches at him to put on clean clothes for school, smiles and shakes her head as he wades in mud past his ankles, even if he’s wearing new sneakers. I’m sure he prefers his Garden Mommy.
The gardener with the plot next to ours told us that it’s tradition to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day. Jake never questions this, even though some years we’ve cleared away snow to sow our seeds. Instead he pushes chubby handfuls of peas into the earth, while I carefully space them as per seed package directions. His always come up. Mine don’t. We’ve found that gardening is an art, not a science, and that we get along better with fewer rules.
With dirt, bricks, sticks, and stakes, Jake builds hide-outs for his superheroes, castles for his knights, and burrows for his new earthworm friends. At home he wants me in his sight, and preferably within his reach. In the garden, he shovels contentedly and isn’t aware of where I am.
Last spring, Jake’s pet crab died. Since I felt more comfortable talking about death in the garden where we’ve watched plants sprout, grow, bloom, and die, we decided to give Crabby a suitable and convenient burial beneath our planned sunflower house. In preparation, Jake drew a memorial picture of Crabby. We carried the dead crustacean to the garden and dug a deep hole, so no one would be tempted, or able, to dig her up. Jake wasn’t interested in covering her with dirt, so I shoveled. As we planted the seeds, I explained that Crabby’s body would help the flowers grow. Fast forward to the fall. We pulled up the dead tree-like sunflower stalks to prepare the garden for winter, breaking one apart to look at the mysterious cross-section of stem. Jake said, “Crabby must be in there.” I had forgotten about Crabby’s burial. Jake hadn’t. What’s more, he probably hadn’t forgotten that his best friend’s mother had also died that spring.
As frost threatens and the harvest slowly ends, we’re sad. Jake doesn’t believe that we can’t keep growing things. After all, we planted peas under the snow. He expects strawberries in October, and cucumbers in November.
Last Christmas Eve, Jake and I dug potatoes for Christmas dinner. How I coerced him, on the very same day Santa was to arrive, I don’t know. I remember that it took a lot of threatening about elves watching. Kneeling in the potato patch, we fell onto all fours and dug like dogs, dirt flying through our legs, until we found potatoes.
Each season we grow with our plants and our knowledge of each other. In the garden, Jake carefully shares his thoughts and I have time to listen. Time momentarily sits still. We suspend the rules, relax, and are allowed be ourselves. We feel breezes, sunshine, and sometimes rain. It’s not the mall. There’s nothing to buy. It’s not the Multiplex. There’s no admission. It’s not TV. There are no commercials. My kid gets to be a kid. I get to be a mom.
This year, my younger son Matty, who is not yet two, planted peas in the cold March dirt. His seedlings came up alongside Jake’s. I didn’t plant peas this year. Instead, I sat at the feet of the masters and took notes.
Michele Flynn: Sixteen years ago, I quit my day job to write. I wanted to show my children that they could do what they loved. We lived on credit cards, my husband’s schoolteacher salary, and stringer work. Now my day job is writing. That alone is amazing to me. But it’s never enough, is it? I branched out into travel writing and short stories. As for my sons, both are doing what they love. One is a writer, the other a musician and a damn good storyteller. It’s worked out for all of us.
SEPTEMBER 15, 2018 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #4 / CHILDHOOD/PARENTHOOD