Tending a Garden And a Family

I once had a garden in a promontory meadow. My late husband, Mark, and I were inexperienced in the way of family. As though we were fledgling parents, we considered our vegetable-and-flower plot a great responsibility. We were young.

Inside the small cabin we had rented, books from the library teetered in stacks on the floor beside our overstuffed chair, the sofa, and the kitchen table. Titles told of texts about organic gardening, vegetables, and mulches. We wanted to do the right thing.

In May, as soon as the land dried a bit, we hand-dug sod and piled it carefully to one side of a 9-by-12-foot rectangle. A friend gave us several rolls of sheep-fencing to protect the seedlings from the heavy deer population.

We bought sacks of manure from the nursery. Standing at the seed racks, we paid little attention to the real space we had, instead imagining lush, giant vegetables that would grow to be even lovelier than the photos on the packets.

Growing up in families that didn't eat much in the way of fresh vegetables, we discovered that having food from the garden was a priority for both of us.

We bought three packets of spinach, which we both loved.

Each seed packet held hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tiny seeds. At home, in coveralls, with packets bursting from our pockets, we looked a little like scarecrows that had popped their stuffing. We dragged our shovels and hoe to the small space of bare dirt.

We carefully raked a 12-foot row for fine seedlings. We sifted and culled. When the soil was as smooth as beach sand, we dragged a No. 2 pencil in an unwavering line from one end of the garden to the other.

``Gee,'' Mark said as he sprinkled the seeds along the dirt, ``they pack a lot of seeds in here.'' We prepared another row.

Unable to throw away even the tiniest seed, we filled half the space of our garden with narrow rows of spinach seed.

Next, we quartered the seed potatoes we'd purchased at the nursery. We planted the rest of the garden and gave the leftover seed potatoes to our neighbors.

``We'll be eating a lot of spinach and potatoes,'' I said. There are insights that help and some you wish you'd never had.

We managed to sneak in only a few nasturtium seeds because they were so big. We relegated the brightly colored seed packets to the top of the refrigerator for another year and another garden.

We did eat a lot of potatoes that fall, and more spinach than I ever care to eat again. When I see the variety at the store, I grimace at the memory of spinach salads, spinach soup, raw spinach, cooked spinach, and frost-hearty spinach given as Christmas gifts.

So prolific were our vegetables that even after we vacated the rental, the owners invited us back to retrieve more potatoes and greens.

Several years passed, and we found ourselves with a greater responsibility than when we carefully prepared that tiny garden plot.

Our infant son, Dylan, was coming home after two months in intensive care. The house we'd been renting was cold and damp. We looked for another.

The owners of the old meadow cabin called us to offer the place once again in exchange for Mark's carpentry skills.

On a cold January day, we came home to the warm cabin where we'd had our beginnings as a family.

After weeks of hospital technology, bright lights, and decisions we didn't want to be making, the solitude of the cabin invited a healing quietude.

That winter, I spent hours sitting at the window just watching. The first clear afternoon in February, I wrapped my husband's wool shirt around me. I left him and our son asleep in the big chair by the heater. The outside air was cold and refreshing in contrast with the sauna-like conditions inside.

I wandered to the old garden, as if I could find the woman who had so carefully set seedlings in rows. The fence was leaning and had collapsed at the corners where we'd used old alder branches as posts.

I bent in the rich, damp meadow grass and parted the blades to see what was growing there.

There wasn't a trace of the deep emerald-green spinach or a leaf that resembled that of a potato plant. But new fern fronds were uncurling, and a black beetle scurried uncharacteristically fast in his sudden exposure.

A teacher I sometimes work with asks his students about a time when they ``caught sense.''

He also explains a kind of ``conversation'' ex-changed by the Bantu people in Africa as they work. It's a dialogue of two lines. One worker throws out a line and another answers.

It's not meant to make sense as in cause and effect.

Rather, the practice brings in images from different landscapes that encourage a fresh view.

I think of it as catching sense from intuition. When it works, there is a satisfaction, a quiet response as though one has just listened to a symphony or a powerful piece of writing.

For a moment, 14 years are suspended and I am bent in meadow grass:

I hear the baby cry.

A fiddlehead fern unfolds in the meadow.

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