What exactly are volunteer maples volunteering for beyond making my life miserable? This is just one of the questions I ask myself as I harvest yet another crop of these pesky maple trees-in-waiting.
Why this Sisyphean task? Because I'm on a mission: to restore my Long Island garden to the way it was when we left New York in 1983 to live in Melbourne, Australia; Tokyo; and Los Angeles.
Then, the space behind the garage that we laughingly called "the back 40" was truly a usable – and useful – half acre. The lilacs and rhododendrons were robust. The dogwoods, styrax, and viburnum bloomed on schedule. The crab apple, the two small peach trees, and the raspberry patch actually produced fruit. The perennial border and the rose garden provided plenty of cut flowers throughout the summer.
Over the years, my mother, Alice Recknagel Ireys, a well-known landscape architect who – among other projects – designed the fragrance garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, did her best to keep the garden pruned and healthy.
But despite her generous efforts, the years had taken their toll. The woods on the east side of the property had greedily consumed some of the back 40. The lilacs were covered by a jungle of wild roses and bittersweet. The perennial border, the rose garden, and the raspberry patch had all but disappeared.
Now that my husband has retired and we have moved back to Bridgehampton, I am trying to re-create the place that I remember. As I work my way around the property – pruning, feeding, and fertilizing – I rediscover small treasures: lilies of the valley, wild strawberries, and hidden honeysuckle.
One morning, my mother's plan of the rose garden fell from the pages of a book like the lost map of another world. The sketch immediately brought back warm memories of her. I remembered clearly the day we went to the nursery to buy Queen Elizabeth, Peace, and Mr. Lincoln.
It was then that I realized I was engaged in digging up not only the tangled weeds, but also my past.
I can see my sons – now 27 and 30 – playing in a plastic pool in the back 40, helping me pick crab apples to make jelly, and jumping into a raked pile of leaves.
I see my mother pointing her cane while giving orders to the men who are planting the lilacs and moving the rhododendrons.
I have a photograph of me, three months pregnant, standing next to my mother-in-law beneath a "waterfall" of wisteria.
I now realize that working in the garden is a way of bringing the people I love close once again.
Maybe what the volunteer maples are actually volunteering for is to give me a hand with my memories.