My Childhood of Gardens

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.

I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.

Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.

My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.

And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.

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The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.

There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.

Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.

I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.

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How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.

There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.

I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.

How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.

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Big Surprise

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                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”

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I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.

“Chicago”.

“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.

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After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.

Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.