I didn’t know it then, but on those spring mornings, barefoot in the garden, my mother was passing down the keys to healing and rootedness.
Seven years before I was born, my brother drowned in the river behind our house. He was a toddler at the time, and it wasn’t until years later, when I had toddlers of my own, that I began to understand how devastated my mother must have been during my childhood. To her credit, I didn’t know it then. On spring mornings when I was little, my mother and I would walk through the garden together in our bathrobes, barefoot, to see what had bloomed overnight. Every plant was known to us and loved, and we would stop in to check on each one, in turn.
My mother took so many flowers in her hands and showed them to me: the delicate, complicated parts of the bleeding heart; the tiny white bells of the lily of the valley arranged along their sturdy stalks. She pulled down the long branches of the mock orange so that I could smell the fragrant, white flowers at the tips. We crouched to inspect the violets outside the kitchen windows, both purple and white, and to marvel at the ferns uncurling into fronds. She taught me that mint likes wet feet, and to plant it under the dripping hose bib. Whenever we passed it she paused, crushed a leaf between her fingers, and held it out for me to smell.
Sometimes a perennial needed dividing to remain in good health, so we put on our work clothes and returned to the garden with a pair of spades. Mom taught me to tread carefully in a crowded bed. It's not easy to dig up a large plant without disturbing its neighbors, but once we managed, we hauled our patient to the lawn, and laid it on its side, preparing for surgery. Mom taught me to place the tip of the spade at the very heart of the crown, and stand on it with authority, to rock back and forth until the mother plant was cleaved in two. Sometimes I fell off my shovel, and often it took a few tries, but once I divided it, she showed me how to prepare the new holes, set the crowns at the correct height, backfill the soil, and water the transplants in.
Mom and I wore cloth gardening gloves and brushed our hair back from our sweaty foreheads with the backs of our wrists. The leaves of the wild cherry rustled above us. The cardinals feasted on the fruit and I on my mother's gentle company. So much had yet to unfold. I was not yet a wife, or a mother, had not felt the heartbreak of divorce, or married again and become a stepmother; so many lessons in love and loss still lay ahead. When I look back, I see that my mother was handing me her tools for coping— a connection to nature, a love of beauty, sensual pleasure, quiet companionship, caretaking, and physical work. I didn’t know it then, but on those spring mornings, barefoot in the garden, my mother was passing down the keys to healing and rootedness. She is gone now, but to this day, when I feel most lost, I take off my shoes and head to the garden.
Sarah Balsley’s essays make us feel less alone. She writes about holding our families together in hard times, reconciling the blows of middle age, and searching for meaning and beauty amid the struggles of daily life. A Yale graduate with an MFA in creative writing, a wife, and a mother of five, Sarah’s work has appeared on NPR, in Brain Child, and at Tue/Night.com.
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