I have long maintained a small but intense flower garden on the incline of the riverbank behind my home in Maine. Dwarf cranberry, bee balm, creeping phlox, and a variety of sedums have all done well there, soaking up the eastern sun at break of day and reposing in the shade as the afternoon advances.
When my 16-year-old son, Alyosha, was very young I made several attempts to interest him in gardening. I showed him how to turn the soil, pull weeds, and apply compost and mulch. I explained the merits of different varieties of plants, and I taught him to get down on his knees to carry out the gratifying, if somewhat tedious, task of thinning seedlings. All to no avail. Gardening, for my son, held no appeal, although he assured me that he was happy that I enjoyed it.
And so I continued to while away my time in the garden as a solitary pursuit, dutifully accepting the fact that this would be one interest I would not be passing on to my son.
Recently, however, I adopted a second son, a 5-year-old boy from Ukraine. I couldn't tell you what exactly it was about Anton that drew me to him when I found him in a small orphanage on the shores of the Black Sea. But I like to think it was the moment, when we were out for a little walk, that he reached down, plucked a small yellow wildflower, and handed it to me. In Russian he remarked, "It's beautiful, and it's for you."
That was back in November. I had to wait seven long months until my garden here in Maine came to flower to see what attraction it might have for him. I watched as Anton smelled the snow-white blossoms of the cranberry and ran his small hands over the shocking blue of the phlox. He smiled and laughed and commented, and I thought: "Ah, maybe, just maybe...."
"Anton," I noised, "would you like to have your own garden?"
His response was immediate, communicated with a clapping and cheering that confirmed the omen of the Ukrainian wildflower he had picked for me.
We didn't waste any time in locating a garden spot for him. We grabbed a passel of tools from the shed and splayed them out on the unworked ground. Then, side by side, we labored away. Anton proved himself to be a real workhorse, struggling with the man-size tools yet refusing to permit me to lend a hand. He wanted to do everything "by myself!"
Gardening solo is a pleasure, therapeutic and deep. But I soon discovered that gardening with a companion especially one brimming with such enthusiasm really quickened the blood. I'm sure it had something to do with sharing the same sensibilities: the rich smell of damp earth, the grit of the soil between one's fingers, and the heat of our muscles as we shoveled and hoed.
We eventually cleared and turned a small patch of black earth. "Now for the flowers," I announced. I took Anton to my flower beds and asked him which ones he wanted to transplant. He immediately shook his head, as if he had already thought this out. But I was puzzled.
"Would you rather buy your own flowers?" I offered. This time he whined. I was clearly not getting through. "Then which flowers do you want?" I asked.
Anton put a finger to his lip, drew an impish smile, and then took me by the hand. He walked me along the riverbank and began to point to the wildflowers in bloom there. "But those are just weeds," I told him with a note of disdain.
Anton began to pout. "But I want them," he said.
Suddenly it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. All of these "weeds" were varieties I had long esteemed for volunteering to grow along the river. The delicate touch-me-nots with their explosive seedpods; the tall and pink joe-pye weed, on which monarch butterflies feed; the diminutive jack-in-the-pulpit with its climactic cluster of red berries; cardinal flower (nature's reddest red); and the nodding blue bonnets of the harebell.
Without another word I assented with alacrity, and Anton helped as we transplanted some of these specimens to his own plot. "Where do you want this one?" I asked as I hovered with the cardinal flower. "And this?" "How about this one?" Together we dug and arranged, until, an hour later, we had a juxtaposition of "weeds" that was new and striking. As for Anton, he was beside himself, to the point where he swept his hand over the scene and exclaimed, "Just like yours, Dad!"
Not quite. I was inclined to think that Anton's garden was better. My flowers needed cultivating, feeding, and general pampering, while Anton's were rugged individualists who had come ashore under their own steam, tried and true. From the seedpods of the touch-me-nots to the berries of the jack-in-the-pulpits to the leftover wisps of Queen Anne's lace, we had a lot to look forward to. Long after my garden had faded, his would be putting on a show.