The Garden

When you were 12 years old you destroyed your mother’s garden. You used a miniature souvenir baseball bat that was purchased at Camden Yards two summers prior. It was sturdy and easy to swing. Normally you wouldn’t remove anything from your souvenir shelf to use for any practical purpose, the objects there were just meant to be proud reminders of the few places you’d been, but you weren’t an Orioles fan so you made an exception.

It was a heavy summer night and the moon shone very bright, it may have even been full. You snuck from your bedroom, down the stairs, through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and out the back door. Barefoot, you crossed the top of the cracked asphalt driveway, then the loose red bricks that formed the small patio, and onto the long waxy strands of green grass that you knew you would be tasked with mowing soon. Where the grass ended, the garden began. You started swinging.

You want to believe that your mother got the idea for her garden from your grandfather. You want to believe that traditions like that are inherited instinctually. As a very small child whenever you would visit his home there were always a few times in the calmer moments of the day that you could witness him walking the paths between his plants, bending down to inspect the progress of his tomatoes. It was a peaceful ritual and a ritual of peace. As a father, he subjected your mother to emotional and verbal abuse she managed to forgive him for later as an adult. You want to believe that she watched him in his garden from the kitchen window with curiosity and wonder, at a time when she was too young to imagine a garden of her own.

It started small. At the end of spring when you were four or five she planted some tomatoes in the dirt next to the splintered staircase that led up to an equally neglected deck. When they were still married, your father told your mother he would water seal the whole thing after it was built. He just never did. You’re not sure how many tomatoes three or four plants yielded, but you remember looking over her shoulder as she crouched down, picking through the branches to discover new green fruit. Waiting and watching them turn red became somewhat of an obsession for you, and you want to believe that this in some way taught you patience. Next year she planted tomatoes again, and this time she allowed you to put one in the ground. You were nervous because you wanted to do it right, you wanted the fruit to be strong and red, a miracle from the earth, and you were afraid that you would ruin it. She guided you and your small dirty hands. You sat in the soil with her and made sure there would be life there.

Before the garden there were hedges, big, ugly, full of wasps, and probably at least six feet high. They created a barrier between your backyard, the small alley, and other backyards beyond. They were more of a nuisance than anything, but they were inherited when your mother and father bought the house. They belonged to a haunted fabric, something that to you had been there forever and was therefore immovable. Your mother had other plans. She was going to cut those damn hedges down and put something there worthwhile, something that was a part of her. 

During the summer they went to work with hedge trimmers and chainsaws and in a day’s time, the gnarled wall was gone. They stacked the usable wood on the side of the house to be burned in your fireplace for years, and they hauled the rest away. Your mother went out to where the hedge used to be and knelt down to touch the earth. It was dry, unhealthy, sucked of its nutrients. You watched her from the kitchen.

Over the next few weeks you helped clean up this dusty plot, raking up the remainder of the hedge and pulling the stubborn roots from the ground. The backyard now seemed big and open. She started a compost pile on the shaded side of the house and went out and bought some quality dirt and mulch. This small, barren patch of soil would need to be nurtured before it could be transformed.

When you turned six your mother put you on drugs. She was a single parent, you were emotional and out of control, so she did what the doctors suggested. First it was Ritalin, and when that didn’t work you were put on something new an average of every six months. Nothing ever worked, or would work, because there was something wrong with you that couldn’t be fixed with a drug. Your mother would tell you, years later, that as a very young child you would look out of the window and say what a beautiful day it was, it didn’t matter whether it was rainy, snowy, overcast, or sunny. After your father left, you would go to the window and just stare, voiceless. You don’t believe that your father abandoning the home was the root cause of everything, but it may have been the beginning of a change.

When you were five or six your mother handed you her camera to take a picture of her in front of the tomato plants. It was an old Canon and you were fascinated by how it could capture a memory, but you would have to wait to see it. When the roll was developed there she was, smiling wider than you’d ever seen, in front of the glorious tomato plants that had grown taller than her that year. That picture is how you like to remember your mother.

Over the next five years the garden grew. Every summer when she had free time you could find her in the dirt, expanding her lush empire of plants. It was her wheelhouse. She planted an impossible variety of flowers, herbs, and shrubs. She expanded the original area where the hedge stood so that it took up one-third of the backyard. She transformed the earth into a fertile crescent of land where anything that she planted grew, and you helped. At first it was because you wanted to, but as time went on, it was only when she asked. Your bedroom became your sanctuary, and the garden became hers.

Each drug had its own personality. On Zoloft, you swore at your grandfather. On Depakote, you hit other children. On Prozac, you walked off the field in the middle of a soccer game, not knowing why, only knowing that you couldn’t be there anymore because you had begun to cry and didn’t want to be seen. Your mother didn’t know what to do, she listened to the doctors, worked a full-time job, and cherished her garden. You do not remember what drug you were on when you destroyed it.

As a different person, you remember that destroying the garden made you feel powerful. At the time you knew no other way to express to your mother what you were going through. You knew it would hurt her. You knew she would wake up in the morning, look out the window, and be furious. She would yell at you, ask why you did it, and you would reply… I don’t know. Instead, she woke up in the morning, looked out the window, yelled at you for just a second, and then returned to her room to sob. She sobbed for a very long time, long enough for you to know that you couldn’t fix it, it would just have to run its course. The sound of her travelled through your entire little home. It is a sound that haunts you to this day. I’m sorry mom, I’m sorry.

You helped clean up the damage in silence, and your mother began to plant new things. In that moment it was the only action either of you knew to take. She continued to work in her garden for the better part of a decade, and by the time she sold the house it was beautiful, a pure expression of the love between a human being and the earth. It represented everything you appreciate about her: it was colorful, unique, and intelligent, born from pain, perseverance, ingenuity and hard work.

You mentioned the garden to her on the phone the other day. She still misses it. You brought up the time you temporarily destroyed it. She told you she didn’t know why you did it, but at the time she was more worried about you than her plants. You reminded her about how the new owners tore up the remnants of the old plants and put grass there. She knows and says what a shame. It is a shame mom, but at least we’re not hedge people.

Michael Buckius

What is the significance of this work to you?

Part of the significance of this work was that it was one of the first times I tried to write honestly and at length about my relationship with my mother. Previously when I wrote about my family it was dominated by writing about my alcoholic father, but my mother was the one who raised me and had the biggest influence on me so it was more of a challenge to write about the parent that I know better.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

I wrote this piece while I was taking a nonfiction workshop in graduate school. My professor KT Thompson really encouraged us to be experimental. Since I consider myself first and foremost a poet, I wanted to try to give it more of a rhythm of a lyric essay but in prose form. Numbering each section just felt natural and almost like I was numbering a specific section of my childhood which in a way felt good, almost like providing some necessary structure to what I perceived much of the time as chaos. Memories, to me, especially traumatic or impactful ones, are standalone, like short films. I wanted this to come across in the form as well.

What was your process for creating this work?

The partial destruction of my mother's garden was something that has always haunted me so naturally, now that I am a somewhat mature human, I wanted to write about it and have an eventual discussion with her. It came out rather quickly. I believe I sat and wrote it over two long sessions. The form and numbers were there from the beginning. At first it was written in first person and it was suggested by my thesis chair Sherwin Bitsui that I should try it in second. At first I resisted but within the context of the entire collection it worked better that way. After sitting with it I believe it to be stronger as a standalone piece as well. While changing everything to second person I also made minor edits throughout the piece to help the flow.

Michael Buckius is a writer and filmmaker from Lancaster, PA. He earned his undergraduate degree in Film and Media Arts from Temple University, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. His work has appeared in Shrew, Ghost City Review, Write On, Downtown, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, Future Sarcasm is forthcoming from Tolsun Books in the Fall of 2020.

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