It has often troubled me to think of my garden when I eventually leave it. With any luck, this won’t be a feet-first scenario, as my husband and I are constantly on the prowl for a few extra square feet in which to fulfill dreams of botanical splendor. But this scenario leaves me saying goodbye to a home I love and a garden I have watched develop over the years like a precious child. How can one possibly say goodbye – knowing there is always the chance that the next family to inhabit my home might prefer gravel over ground covers and lawn over lisianthus?
A few days ago, a friend and I helped a mutual friend to vacuum floors, shift furniture and dig beloved plants in preparation for a military move some fifteen hours away. We beetled about in the basement for a couple hours, and I came to a room where, two months before, we had sat as three couples, watching a funny film, joking with one another and enjoying the camaraderie of lives floating unbelievably in our forties. Looking around at empty walls and spotless floors, I swallowed a feeling of heavy sadness, realizing that a particular moment in time had come and gone – the only record of which existed now as memory.
It put me in mind of my own home and garden, wondering how much of me would remain when furniture was moved, garden benches were packed, and bird feeders were wrapped in newspaper to eventually hang from different trees. What sort of vision would new owners have for the garden? Would the playhouse slowly decay, the raised vegetable beds rot away and the wild grape be allowed to take over the bee yard? Or would they treasure the hedge of lavender, place a bench under the maple, and pick plums for jam just as I have done all these years?
Moving into this house ten years ago, we beat back honeysuckle, poison ivy and pokeweed that had crept out of the woods and toward the house for at least a year. The lawn had grown sparse and an overgrown spirea blocked access to the north side of the house, where hemerocallis and artemisa grew without restraint on a steep hill. The only sign of a garden was symbolized in a lone Abraham Lincoln rose in the front yard, and a line of peonies in the back – all of which an unchecked clan of groundhogs had efficiently decapitated by the time we cleared the parthenocissus away and discovered them. There was no garden in any real sense.
And yet there had been. Months after our move, we had the pleasure of entertaining the family who had lived in the house for eighty years. We were told of vegetable gardens and outhouses, forsythia which always bloomed for Easter photos and shucking black walnut hulls under the wheels of the family station wagon. We learned of the mother’s love of those very peonies and a father’s passion for tomato plants….and how determined daughters wallpapered rooms in bright new colors as often as they were allowed – wallpaper now faded and peeling and scheduled for black plastic bags and curbside pickup.
Sitting there in my new old dining room, with floors that needed sanding and ceilings that needed paint and a plasterer’s trowel, I listened to this family relate stories of a house and garden which didn’t exist for me, yet could not be clearer in their collective memory. The thought of that home motivated us in our subsequent renovation. To this day those peonies grace different corners of my garden and I think of the children playing when I discover an old marble covered by four inches of soil and sixty years.
For our friends, the hours of vacuuming and digging are now over. They are ready to leave their home and will soon be taking on eleven acres and a home in Kentucky. No doubt they will come across a few surprises in the shed, and a few in the fuse box – just as we once did. They will build a new life together that is more than just a garden or a house or a few sticks of furniture. They will make new friends and rely on the strength of their family – creating new bonds and a new sense of place in a home where another family once lived, worked and loved.
Faced with the unknown before them and the known behind them, it is my great hope that they will not allow sadness to dominate their move. For though their home and garden are theirs no longer, they will always own the memories – as crystal clear as the day they were made.
So will we all.
Ape will cherish this. Made me tear up.
Marianne, this is a wonderful essay that is worthy of rereading. I will pass it on to others. As you note it’s not just gardens where the memories accumulate, but they are by their nature constantly changing and evolving, and challenging us to keep up. Just as children are yardsticks for our aging process the plants we start as seeds or cuttings end up far beyond our original vision (mine anyway). And sometimes the change is for the better. It’s just different. Thanks for making me pause and think. Uh, Wait! Let me press my granddaughter’s pause button and take a mental picture.
Thanks so much John. My friends are settling into their new place now and excited to begin the process again. All is potential.