When I was in my late 20s, my 37-year-old brother died. Fred was one of those brilliant characters whose personal demons were always too much for him—as they were for those of us who tried to help him navigate them. Despite having been a poet and an adjunct English professor, in the summer he died he was doing maintenance work at the business of an old friend of his. Part of that work included planting and tending a garden at the back of the building where he worked. Although our home growing up was always filled with houseplants that my mother cared for, we were definitely a suburban family. No one in our group had ever grown a vegetable garden, so this was new to us. Several times that summer, I drove downtown to sit with him next to that garden, and to admire what seemed like 10 million tomatoes and zucchinis that he grew. We were both in awe of all of it—home-grown vegetables, nature, the whole thing. Mostly, it felt like an uncomplicated affirmation of something larger than us—a feeling we each needed during those early August days.
Somehow, without my constant fussing, this little garden has just done what it was supposed to do.
He died right after that, on Labor Day weekend in 1978. The next spring, still grieving about what had happened and what hadn’t, I decided to try my hand at my own vegetable garden. I lived in a house with a large back yard at the time, and a portion of it had already been fenced off for a garden kept by someone who’d lived there before me. I knew nothing about what I was doing, but I did some research and I hired someone to rototill the ground for me before I planted green beans, tomatoes, more squash and pumpkins than I could ever use, and a variety of things I’ve long forgotten. I stuck with the garden most of the summer and I felt proud of myself for my follow-through and for honoring Fred in this way that reminded me of our last days together. I didn’t try a garden again for another 40 years—just a couple of summers ago, in fact. The tomato plants got tall on that attempt, but produced practically nothing. I struggled to plant them in the first place because the dirt was hard and dry, and the whole enterprise seemed fraught from the beginning.
We had only lived in this house a short time that summer and we didn’t yet feel like part of this place, as you do when you’ve been somewhere long enough to feel a real connection. In a weird way, that began to change when the pandemic hit. We were spending practically every waking hour at home and it started to feel safe and comforting, like a refuge. This spring, when I was only a few months from retiring, and longing for that same quiet simplicity and grounding I’d felt in my brother’s garden, I decided to try it again. We bought a metal trough to use as an above-ground planter, along with a few plants and packets of seeds. Even in April, I felt more promise about it than I had when I tried it two years ago.
But I watered it too much at first, almost pushing too hard for success. I looked at it nearly hourly to see if anything had grown, and I fretted over it like an anxious mother. Eventually, the pepper plant produced one small, green pepper and then died out, and I got discouraged. It didn’t feel like it had that summer so long ago when I was honoring Fred, but of course how could it? Still, the plants were in the ground, so I decided to just take a less complicated approach to the whole thing—not make it represent quite so much. Somehow, without my constant fussing, this little garden has just done what it was supposed to do. It has been a chance for me to feel my own footing here, in this house and in this season of my life.
Last week we feasted on a lovely, crisp cucumber, fresh basil and juicy tomatoes. I thought of Fred, of course, and felt so glad that he’d had that garden, and that we got to sit on that curb together for however short a time it really was.