An apartment dweller for forty years, I learned to navigate labyrinth hallways, steep staircases balancing bags of groceries, elevator caverns without eye contact. Every door the same, spread out like beads on a necklace, never a precious gem to hold. Then, I bought a townhouse. Around my concrete patio, I had garden beds where I could plant. When I moved into this house, I was gifted a watering can and a garden claw and spade wrapped in raffia as a housewarming gift. I wasn’t sure how to use these tools.
It was the middle of the summer before I was settled into my new home, too late to plant, but not too late to dream of tulips, proud in their simplicity, petals stretching up, a sun salutation. Imported from Holland, my bulbs would produce tulips with red and white striped ruffled petals. A ritual ensured the bulbs would bloom. First, use the bulb planter to dig a hole of the correct depth, then add bone meal, place the bulb, pointed side up, and tuck it in for a dreamless winter’s sleep.
My first scoop into the ground, and I disturbed a napping earthworm. No eyes, but sensors across its body, and when sunlight hit, it burrowed back into darkness. I wish I were that smart, to retreat when the truth about Bob came out. Instead, my skin was sunburned, painful to touch. Soon, a white web of dead skin cells would weave across my shoulders. I watched in horror and fascination; I was molting. But I learned nothing. The next time the shovel disturbed the soil, I gladly crawled out.
The soil felt slick, and it was hard to dig. I didn’t know that my garden soil was full of clay and rocks. I set the rocks aside, waited until spring, watching for the tiniest sprout of green, but nothing. The clay soil strangled the bulbs and they rotted away. The first of many gardening mistakes.
I did keep the rocks I dug out of my garden and the big rock that Bob carried in his backpack for me when we were hiking in Colorado. The five-pound rock was shaped like a mountain, flat on one side with protrusions and indentations on the other. Bob thought the rock was quartz, veins meandered around it, darker spots of mineral deposits. I pulled this rock out of the dry soil with my hands where we stopped on the trail for water.
Bob was bipolar, but I refused to see it. It was a sticky, heavy relationship, long distance with a married man before the age of electronic communication. When he was manic, he couldn’t get enough of me. His teeth scraped against each artichoke leaf until he got to the heart. But was it the artichoke he craved or the sauce, warm buttery garlic, dripping off hands and chins? Manic or depressed, Bob made quick decisions, ones that kept him temporarily in one spot, always longing for transplant to a different garden.
Depression strangled Bob and made it almost impossible for him to see beyond the small space he dug for himself. He would endure the winter, feel safe in the frozen soil, and wait for the shifting sun. I sensed the shovel coming and I finally moved on.
It took a while to learn about good soil. Soil that falls softly through the fingers like dream fragments when waking. The need for organic matter, like peat moss and mulch, understanding the importance of lightness in soil, the need for air, the longing for roots to expand, water moving against gravity to carry nutrients from the ground up to the blossom.
Each spring, I disturbed the congealed surface, used the garden claw to turn the dirt, mix in what was needed, unsettling the home of worms and bugs. After a few years, my soil improved. I planted bushes to frame my garden bed, a fragrant lilac, a baby pink and fuchsia peony, a snow drop hydrangea. Then, it was time to move again. I learned that the new owner covered my garden beds with landscape rocks, installed a permanent gas grill, splattering grease where there was once commitment.
The rock from Bob moved with me three times, and now, I keep it on a bookcase, don’t really look it at unless I move it to reach a specific title, the dust rag circles around it blindly.
My new house doesn’t have space for a garden bed, so instead, I line my patio perimeter with containers of flowers. Potting soil, sold in bags, is the perfect mixture. Each morning during the summer, I stand at the patio door, look at my flowers, and drink coffee.
Late spring of 2020, the pandemic spreading like powdery mildew, I ventured out with mask and gloves to the garden center. I needed beauty in my confinement. I don’t remember what I planted, but that summer, two white butterflies came frequently, and through the window, I watched them dance. When the weather changed, I thought I said goodbye to my newly proclaimed spirit animals. The following summer, they returned to remind me of the promise of nature, to instruct, to heal, to inspire.