When you’re a kid your parents give you chores and tell you that they want you to learn responsibility. They never suspect that you know the truth: the only reason they want you to do this stuff is that they’d rather not.
On hot, steamy, bug-filled New Jersey summer mornings I had to untangle the hose (which always found a way of tangling itself up), turn on the spigot, drag the hose across our suburban quarter acre and squirt water at anything that was green.
This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I was a fat kid with seasonal allergies that made me a sneezing wreck for most the warmer months. I’d honk so fast and loud that people in air conditioned cars would give me that I’m-so-glad-I’m-not-you look. When my nose wasn’t clogged I’d pale at the sticky-icky-sweet smell of fermenting crab apples that fell off the trees and were chopped up by the lawn mowers to rot in the sun. The neighbors would let their dogs poop on the lawn, so I’d have to blast that, and the flies, away by putting my thumb on the end of the hose, which would squirt some back at me, so, at the end of a few long minutes, I’d be as soggy as my handkerchief.
Worst of all, instead of having so many trees and shrubs because my mother liked plants and had hired a landscaper to make flower circles and wavy borders of mulch so she could have more plants per square foot than the Jersey Pine Barrens, the neighbor next door had a big, aquamarine above-ground swimming pool rising like a natural gas storage tower. While sneezing and snuffling across our botanical garden, I’d turn and see this aluminum pond and maybe hear a sound of delight or catch the sunlight on a splash. You put water into things like THAT, I grumbled, not on plants.
My soaking duties so pleased my parents that my summer duties were increased to mowing the lawn, which I found even more despicable. Our power mower was loud and hot and stank of burnt chlorophyll. It also had one of those pull chords that aroused the motor to an angry snarl when yanked by the guy who sells it to your father, but just chutters impotently when the sun is burning a hole in your head, the neighbors’ kids are laughing in their pool, and I’m about to leave the thing in the middle of the driveway and run into the house and hide near an air conditioner when…I give it one, last, cynical pull, and the motor doesn’t start as much as it laughs at me, as if it could have come to life at the beginning but wanted to play dead just to piss me off.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that gardens in the suburbs aren’t merely stupid things to have so that you can teach your kids responsibility. They have meaning, context and personality. They show you care enough about where you live to moderate the bland conformity and harsh edges of the developer’s original plan, with blurs of green, moments of visual drama and beautiful flashes of seasonal color.
And, if you happen to become a person who puts plants into the ground with the expectation that they’ll grow, a garden provides metaphors that teach patience, dedication and subtle wonder.
Before that happens you have to grow a few years, lose that fat you acquired from finishing everything your mother put on your plate, and let your immune system discover that airborne pollen wasn’t out to get you. It helps if you find yourself in the gardens of Versailles on a Sunday when they turn the fountains on, and, when living in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and wondering if anyone would publish your dreams, you discover a visit to the landscaped groves of Dumbarton Oaks can make you forget the rejections, and you find a sense of peace and gentility in places like Longwood in Pennsylvania, Kew in London, Tivoli outside Rome, the Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes in Paris, the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, Leaming’s Run in New Jersey, Bartram’s in Philadelphia, and Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where, in a town where so many people are sure that God is with them and not all those other people, you notice how nice it is to be left alone.
But you’re not alone in these gardens. You’re with someone who, like you, likes gardens but, unlike, actually wants to put things in the ground and watch them grow.
So you’re married to this person and you watch her visit nurseries and garden supply stores and you have to open the car’s sun roof so that the newest tree can fit in, pile up around it so many big bags of mulch and garden soil to the car, piling them so high that the frame of the car hangs down on the tires and the people in cars give you another, distinct but sufficiently similar I’m-glad-I’m-not-you look.
And when a living thing she’s planted doesn’t make it, you feel a little bit sad. You want to replace it with something so you make a run to the nursery and you come back with all this strange stuff, and soil and mulch, and you stick it in the ground and find yourself standing in front of it all with a hose in your hand shooting water at it all.
That’s when, on hot summer days, you imagine the plants are talking to you, asking, pleading, demanding that you train the spray on them so, rather than turning brown and scraggly, they can be green and colorful and shoot off so many blooms and blossoms like a slow-motion fireworks display.
You see, in one small growing thing, the person you were when you were many years ago when you were just one more kid living in a scuzzy urban apartment, writing stories that you absolutely sure should be published, and, it seemed, that success was like rain that fell on so many others who didn’t have the talent or didn’t work as hard, and you wished some of that sweet water would come your way.
The kid with the hose has become the man with the hose that he has to unkink occasionally. Some of the back spray hits me in places I’d rather not be soaked. Bugs swirl about and the sun scorches my skin.
But this time, I’m not sneezing and complaining about what my parents want me to do. I’m a rain god by whose whim life-affirming success showers down on the deserving, the beautiful, the merely pleasing, the parched and needy, or, as it also happens, whatever else is in the way.
From the corner of my eye, I see an air conditioned car slow down. The driver gives me a look that says, if he didn’t have to drive this car to run this errand or go to this job, he just might want to stand still on a summer day and help living things grow.