Mother-Daughter Weeding Lessons

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MY mother has always been a meticulous gardener. Her bushy tomato plants, heavy with green fruit, and her fragrant roses were the jewels of our neighborhood. Stakes placed in a linear pattern supported the tomatoes against a wooden fence and separated them from the roses that stood front and center.

On lazy summer mornings, I'd lean on the sill of my top-story bedroom window and watch her tend her beds. The sweet, dense smell of flowers came, like a dream, into my room.

Weeding was one of several jobs I did as a child. I'd grumble and complain and bump the big bucket on my skinny shins, and when the bucket was full weeds would tumble along the path between assigned spots. I'd have to spend as much time retrieving them as I did cleaning under the bushes that I was instructed to "tidy up." The only time I was more resistant was when I was told to dust.

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There was nowhere my mother's and my differences were more apparent than in the garden. As soon as she'd round the corner out of sight, I'd set aside the trowel she'd given me with precise directions on how to dig a weed by the root. Instead I'd quickly pull the tops of dandelions until the dirt at least looked temporarily free of weeds.

I never learned to weed properly, but something from that time took hold in me as tenaciously as a taproot. I came to know the peace that resulted from burying my hands in soil, from watching blossoms quietly come to fruition and then scatter on the ground like rain.

I REMEMBER wrapping up in an old beige sweater and following my mother out to a frosty February garden to clip stems of forsythia. We watched the first yellow blossoms force themselves out of paper-thin shells to fill our house with the surety of spring.

We shared the pleasure of burying our noses in the climbing rose bush growing tall by the back door. Though my mother wanted to teach me to weed, to tend, what I'd learned from following her wispy movements through the garden was a feel and a smell that continues to guide me more precisely than a weed-free path.

Occasionally my mother still comes to help me weed my large rambling garden. She takes few breaks, but we work near each other and talk about the little and big things that put a life together. In her 70s now, she sits on a small oak chair in the shade and spends afternoons digging up weeds and pruning. When she moves to a new spot, she leaves a mark as clearly as if she'd put her signature to a painting. The weeds dare not come back for the rest of the season.

My method of weeding has changed only in that I now use a shovel to overturn weeds and chop them up. The results are identical to those of my youth: The weeds are back in a matter of weeks.

Where I let the new green of ferns overtake the old brown fronds, my mother prunes the dead growth until a pile of brown swords, that my children will duel with later, grows beside the bucket of smaller prunings.

For weeks after my mother visits, I'm stalled on my rapid trips through the garden by patches that are perfectly brown and bare around plantings, and by ferns that wave upright, unimpeded by old growth at the bottom. It is as though two different gardens grow side-by-side.

My mother has always been able to make a serene island in the midst of chaos. The fact that she feels free to come and leave her imprint is not unlike the story of our life together.

Somehow through all the challenges presented by having a daughter so very unlike herself, my mother has taken only joy in the difference. During my erratic first attempts at mowing the lawn or weeding, she seemed pleased that I would make the effort. And now, faced with a garden so opposite from the clean beds she is used to, she is full of praise at all the colors and fragrance of the flowers.

Though the garden is where my mother and I leave the most visible signs of how different we are, it is also the place that binds us together as irrevocably as a tree is tied to its roots. My mother has taught me to take delight in what we share and to respect our differences.

Years ago, after my husband's death, my mother said that what she'd miss most is watching him smell her roses every time he came for a summer visit. I said, to reassure her, that the memory of him would be there.

Now I look to see the rolling beds of flowers, the brown warm soil, and I see my mother as surely as if she were perched on the edge of a child's oak chair digging roots and leaving me and the soil not at all the way she found us.

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