Can I have a bit of earth? To plant seeds in. To make things grow.
~Mary, The Secret Garden
My mother is a gardener; not just for her own property, no, she manages a 2 acre garden she designed around the seven species of Israel, as well as runs a community garden, a newly planted vineyard, and consults in her increasingly sparse spare time.
But I remember her first as a storyteller.
She was the one who taught me that life is hard, often to a point of breaking you, but if you can tell a story with the pieces somehow you can again become whole. Her family was disassembled by alcoholism and ambition, and she won’t mind me telling you this, eventually suicide and incarceration. My father’s family had a similar tale, but set in the underbelly of East Texas, where gambling and White Lightening, loose women and horse races, lived side-by-side with Sunday school and church picnics.
For both of them, the journey to living their fullest life has been helped along by the telling of stories. The red in their ledger may always stand out, but by turning these marks into stories, they discovered that marks don’t have power at all.
I am not always one to look back, to be willing to say This is where I have been, and let me paint you the picture so you really understand. Sometimes this means I am also not always the best at staying in the moment. Some days, that merely is not acceptable.
I came to my mother’s Israel Prayer garden Thursday, today, or yesterday depending on when you read this — for lunch. I decided to sit in the same seat, with my fingers not typing at keys, and look around for a bit. I decided to listen closely to my mother, something I don’t always get to do now, because now is so full of planning for tomorrow.
I have this memory, and it is not from girlhood, but from young adulthood, which is why this memory is so sweet. When I was fourteen we lived in Colorado. On one side of our house soared Pikes Peak, on the other an evergreen forest that spread out for miles, the trees like little black spikes in the white earth and snow. Our house stood in the middle of nothing, and at night the winds would whip the wooden frame as if punishing it for doing something naughty.
Sometimes the winds were vicious when it wasn’t nighttime. This particular day was like that. I was supposed to be doing a book report, but the book I had chosen (adult literary fiction I picked for the pretty cover) was boring me to tears. I eased up from the couch to watch the trees sway with the onslaught of angry wind, and saw my mother, also reading, in a chair by the fireplace. I began to stare at her. She proceeded to ignore me. I eventually got up, crawled across the floor to her, and sat beside her feet.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
“Aren’t you reading?” she asked, not looking up from her book, which must have been much more interesting than mine.
“I’m done,” I lied. Her eyebrow shot up in disbelief. “For now. Tell me about your high school.”
My mother had many stories about her high school; a drafty old stone building in New England, built sometime after Jesus was born but before The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show. I knew the stories well. They involved a secret passage and her best friend Dickie — who I realize now, I totally shipped her with at the time — and troublemaking, because my mom was ever the redheaded troublemaker, and I loved them all.
She closed her book, leaving her finger pressed inside so I knew she was still halfway living in her book, and only partly entertaining my whimsy.
And she did.
Not all of her stories were as happy as the high school ones. In fact, some were desperately dark. But I didn’t realize that when I was young. I didn’t see the sadness in her eyes when she told me how her older sister had to bake her birthday cake one year — creating a disaster that could only be remedied by chocolate and Coca-Cola— because her mom was too drunk to get out of bed. My mother and her sister eventually went to live with their aunt and uncle in New Hampshire after their father’s death, and their mother was deemed unfit.
My mother’s life changed forever that day, as life tends to do when you lose the one person you were supposed to have forever.
It took me years of listening to her stories to see the message hidden amongst the antics; the lessons she was teaching me about loyalty or honor, friendship or character. The lessons that I would later try to teach my own son by recounting my darkly colorful tales. Without much effort, my mother — or my father, or my uncle, who tells stories that will make you want to find Jesus— managed to form me into one who, not only seeks the stories herself, but places value on the intangible power words can have on molding ones character.
As I sat in the garden, inhaling the scent of fresh blossoming roses, lavender and rosemary mingling together in the cool autumn breeze, I watched my mother work, and I couldn’t help but observe the story she wove there with her shovel and wheelbarrow full of dirt. She pulled out dead plants, or the unruly grass. She turned the soil, pacing around it, rake in hand, plotting the most perfect way to fill the space. She planned, but she also attacked, knowing this task is as much about the known, as the unpredictable.
She doesn’t write like she used to, and now the telling of her stories are for the grandkids nestled on her lap, and not the daughter grown and writing her own. But the knowledge that the vulnerable is also the powerful, that the story appears almost anywhere and everywhere all at once, and with it comes a glimmer of mischief to attack it like a plot of untilled earth; that never goes away. It has evolved into earth filled days and nights laying awake pondering the perfect placement of a group of bushes and some ornamental grass.
It still teaches me, molding me somehow just by the act of her doing it. She’s still telling me her story, and it still helps me find mine.