A Bashful Brown-Thumb Does Her Best

As with most of my cherished friends, I don't recall the moment in which Louise and I became good friends. I can only remember her being in my life full force, with flaming hair, motherly advice, sisterly humor, Siamese cat, featherbed, chocolate, and garden.

You cannot know Louise without knowing her garden, and that is no ordinary collection of edible veggies, heavily scented blossoms, pristine roses, or carefully mulched shrubs. For Louise's garden spreads into house and heart; it is her life, her language, her very fibre, I sometimes think.

Indoors, the garden is a force to be reckoned with, a green omnipresence. Outdoors, it is a nonsensical (to outsiders) mass of eccentric botanical vines and shrubs. In my eyes, both were true jungles.

My first encounter with Louise's indoor plant menagerie would have been, of course, under the safe pretense of afternoon tea or a waffle brunch. In either case, I could carefully situate myself a good safe distance from trees looming in the corner, vines lurking along the baseboards, and whatever spiders might swoop from the breathy cobwebs in the corners of the cathedral ceilings.

The real adventure began when my love for cats led to my three-week stint as indentured gardener - weeds, watering can, and all. Louise had fretted one afternoon about leaving for Hawaii without a caretaker for Mister Thomas Cattus (the Siamese). I (fool) volunteered to live there for the duration of her vacation. Louise (grand deceiver) added nonchalantly that there were the plants (jungle) to be tended.

It would have fallen within reason to take a plastic watering vessel from under the kitchen sink once a week and shower the little leaflets. Even hosing down (if we had a dry spell) the outdoor carpet that bordered two walls of Louise's ground-level apartment was within my realm of brown-thumb sanity. But in all of Desert Storm, there never was a more intricate, all-consuming battle plan than Louise's survival regimen for her jungle.

IRST, there was the possibility of a late-spring frost. To guard against the effects of this, I was to either run back down the sidewalk to the television in my own apartment, or crouch in front of her radio, waiting for a fatherly voice on public radio to predict the weather between Ravel's "Bolero" and "All Things Considered."

If frost struck, I was to spread a thin, holey baby blanket from the Kennedy era over certain sections of the outdoor brigade. By doing so, I would also be running counterintelligence to the property's groundskeeper, Jerry: The blanket hid Louise's contraband tomato plants from his spying eyes.

Calomonden and lemon trees were to spend as much time outdoors as possible, but were to be snatched in immediately if the temperature fell below 40 degrees F. There was a spray for the white flying bugs, and a spray for the black crawling bugs. But you had to spray around the blooms or they'd be killed, according to the label. And there were multiple troops of plants to be transported daily from their barracks in Louise's bedroom to the great beyond just outside the front door.

Where was my cuddling time with Mister (who usually hid in terror of my kisses to his little chocolate face)? It seemed to me I would be spending every spare minute either on bug patrol with the spray tank, or on reconnaissance frost-watch missions.

But looking back, I did reap the secret benefits of jungle-keeping, invisible to the average brown-thumb but known to the trained guerrilla: opening my eyes to find a stripe of sunlight edging its way through the bedroom blinds to dance on the tiny new blossom on a lemon tree; inhaling the incredible fragrance issuing from a few meek calomonden buds; watching dry, thirsty soil absorb every drop of water from my makeshift watering can; and yes, shielding the illegal tomato plants from the Jerry Patrol in yet one more victorious day of la Rsistance.

UT alas, though I gave my best efforts to earn these glories, I failed miserably. Since both of us were nurses, I hoped Louise would condone my surrender to fatigue after coming off night duty. I was doing well to get anything watered, much less sprayed, dusted, transported, or pruned. Once I threw the blanket haphazardly over the outdoor ranks, and it stayed there for days, shamefully depriving the plants of their sunlight, save through the random holes. Mister got his Nine Lives, while the plants suffered the worst negligence.

The day before Louise's return, I jumped into action as if under surprise enemy attack, snipping every brown edge from leaves, whisking away the blanket from buried blossoms, dumping what seemed gallons of water on parched pots, and spraying everything in sight, including the cat if he got in my way. And then I slunk back to my apartment in shame.

In the years I've known her, Louise has asked so little of me, yet given so much to me: a warm mug of hot chocolate when I cried; hiking adventures; treasured treks to the nursery where cardboard boxes housing newborn kittens seemed to grow under tables; even a "shut up, Louise!" to herself when she felt her motherly advice coming on too strong.

Only once did she refuse to aid me, when she did not interrupt her Bible studies to rescue me from the killer (dead) pigeon my cat brought me and batted around my living room.

Louise never said anything about the condition of her beloved jungle upon her return. What I had perceived to be the militant nature of her motherhood had now become the friendship of tolerance and forgiveness of my shortcomings.

One of the best gifts Louise ever gave me was a calomonden tree, which I nursed, sprayed, watered, and loved faithfully. My late-night marathon phone calls to Louise always included reports of the newest blossom or the gigantic proportions of the ripest fruits.

Eventually, a move to the city forced me to give my tree to my former landlords. Louise plans to build on her sister's land in Wyoming, where she probably won't have a phone, but where the world will be her jungle. My apartment remains devoid of anything I can kill by not spraying it, and I await the arrival of the cats I recently adopted. I'm learning.

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