I didn't start gardening until I was twenty-nine, actually, my husband started gardening when I was twenty-nine; I became "gardening support." It all started with one sad, wilted tomato plant that spring, and ended with a freezer full of garden-fresh tomatoes, zucchini, and beans that fall.
"Look!" My husband, James said. He had just come in from work, he was holding up a black, plastic pot with a wilted tomato plant that hung limply to the side; James was smiling like a twelve-year-old boy with a huge toad bulging out of his fist. I eyed the tomato plant, and didn't say anything.
"It's a tomato plant!" He said, thrusting it toward me. I reached my hand out toward it, then changed my mind, instead folded my arms across my chest. Our two-year old son, Grover, plowed into my husband's legs at that moment, and the tomato plant flopped limply from side to side.
"I can see that it's a tomato plant; what is it doing here?" I asked, as though the plant had followed him home like a stray kitten.
"We're gonna plant it! We'll get more, and we'll have a vegetable garden this year," he said.
He knelt down on the floor to show Grover the plant, "look, Grove, tomato plant," he said to the toddler, who promptly grabbed at the limp greens; James pulled the plant out of Grover’s reach.
"'Mato pants,” said Grover. "'Mato pants... Mato pants!" He chanted, dancing a jig around my husband.
That was the beginning of our garden. Plots were dug and the soil was prepared, gardening books of all kinds started showing up around the house. Nearly every day brought James home from work with some new plant, or more seed packets. Vegetables, fruits and herbs were planted, and started to grow in our back yard garden.
James was thrilled with each new sprout, and I was indifferent. It wasn’t that I disliked gardening; I had not been enthusiastic about anything then; my mother had died unexpectedly from a ruptured tumor in her lung a few months before, and nothing I did held much pleasure for me. Gardening just seemed like another chore to do, something else to be “gotten to,” during the day. I kept Grover out of the garden, watered it when it was hot, and just continued to muddle through my days, reminding myself to get up each morning and breathe.
It was a Tuesday evening when James brought home a packet of bush beans, and I finally began to garden.
“Mom!” I shouted, running into the house from the school bus. “Mom, where are you?” She answered from her room, so I toss my book bag on the sofa and hurried down the hall to her door.
“Becky, what are you shouting about?” She said. She saw at what I was holding in my hand and furrowed her brow. “You’re getting dirt all over the carpet! Get that thing outside!” She walked toward me and shooed me down the hall, and out the back patio door. The plastic baggie in my hand had sprung a leak sometime between school and my front door, and I left a trail through the house.
“Sorry mom, but look, can I plant them in the back?” I held up the baggie toward her with its treasure inside; three small bean plants peek out of the top of the leaking bag.
“What are they?” Mom asked her brow still furrowed.
“Beans!” I say.
“You’re a sophomore in high school and you are growing beans in a baggie? What are you learning, kindergarten botany?” Mom said.
“I don’t know; I do what Mr. Thomas says. Anyways, can I plant them in the yard?” I said. I was still excited; I had visions of Jack and his beanstalk climbing beyond the clouds.
“Fine. That’s fine I guess. You’ll need to make a place,” Mom said. She reached for the caddy that held her gardening tools and ushered me down the deck steps toward the back of the yard. “Near the fence will be best. There,” she pointed to a spot by the fence, far from the tall tree that sits in the corner of the yard.
“Why not over there, by the tree?” I asked her, gesturing toward a tall evergreen with my baggie of bean plants.
“They need sun,” she said. “I had better give you a hand or they will be dead by the weekend.” Mom let out a sigh meant to be exasperation, but she was enjoying herself. She knelt on the ground next to the spot she had pointed out, and instructed me to pull up all of the weeds and stones in a small patch. Less than an hour later, we had prepared a place, planted, and watered the beans. While we worked she explained how to care for them, and then we settled into relaxed silence with sound between us beyond the rings on her hands softly clicking together. When we were finished, we both had dark patches on our knees, dirt on our cheeks, and smiles on our faces.
A few weeks that passed school ended for the summer. Mom and I would go out often to see ‘Becky’s Beans’, as she had named them, and we watched them grow together. With three other foster girls in the house, there had never been enough time alone with Mom; our little bean patch brought us together. We shared conversations, some of our talks were about growing beans, but even those conversations were about more than gardening. Some of the things we talked about were important, and some were not, but the things we shared were just Mom’s and mine.
When the beans were finally big enough to pick and eat, Mom sent me out with a colander, and I gather beans for dinner. When we ate that night, she bragged about what good beans they were, and she said all of us girls should plant a garden together next year. We never did, though, and I was glad. That year, Mom and I didn’t grow a garden together, we grew together.
I planted my own patch of bush beans in the sun last year, and I watched them sprout and grow. When I tended to them, I would think about ‘Becky’s Beans’ from all those years ago, and recalled the conversations we had together over my little patch of garden. She would encourage me when I was down, and laugh with me about something else. I weeded the rows of beans with the sun on my back and remembered mom’s laughter and wisdom accompanied by the comforting clicking of her rings.
When we harvested our crop last year, and ate fresh beans for dinner the day we picked them; I was glad that I had finally taken her advice about growing another garden, even if it was fifteen years later. I didn’t just find a love for gardening; instead, I remembered my love for my mother, and found her in the dark, rich soil that just like her life, and then her passing, fostered new growth.
*This is the final edit of "How I Lost My Mother to Cancer, and Found Her Through My Garden"