Making Her Garden Grow

Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

“Dreams don’t come true,” her son announced. She was taking him to his Suzuki piano lesson. It was her practice to finish at the office early the afternoon of the lesson. They would stop at San Remo Bakery on the way – hot chocolate for him, cappuccino for her. In the middle of his strawberry tart, her boy had said, “Dreams don’t come true.”

At that very moment, someone placed a box on their table, and before she could spin around, that someone was tapping at the window behind which they sat. She looked up and recognized a former client who had stiffed her for some $3,000.00. He waved, simply, and blew them a kiss. Inside the box was this magnificent cherry cheesecake – reparations. The case was a big-bear version of the little tart her son was eating, his lips covered in whip cream and the blood-red stain from the strawberries.

“You see,” she said, “you see, Sweetie, dreams do come true. They do.” He looked at the cake and the look on her son’s face was worth the $3,000.00 the client would never pay.

She was convinced. Firstly, that there were dreams, and secondly, that they come true. They come true, of necessity.

Like the miracle of the first snowfall – when someone cleared out her driveway. In fact, that entire year had been measured in small miracles. Not even the information delivered by her husband through their doubting-Thomas-of-a-son had shaken her faith in this fundamental necessity. And that message? That the next-door neighbour better have cleared out her driveway. She, after all, was the notional half owner of the snowblower her husband had purchased with him the fall before the separation. Had the neighbour not told her about that? Of course not. He’d kept the information to himself. The snowblower, she half-owned. So he bloody well have cleared out her driveway. That was no miracle at all. By the husband’s estimation, he owed her. Not even that shook her faith in miracles.

Why she had that truckload of topsoil dumped onto her driveway, that first summer after the separation, was beyond Francesca. She realizes now that it had something to do with grief. She thought she knew about grieving, having counselled so many clients through the process, always telling them in the first interview: “I promise you, you will feel better a year from now than you do today. You will look back, and tell me I was right.”

Other wisdoms she dispensed: “Some things in life you cannot will. One is love. And love can die, just as mysteriously. Love happens to us when we are ready, when we least expect it, going about our business, our daily lives.”

Sometimes, as she looked at these clients from across her desk, she wondered who counselled whom? One would tell her about lowering the unit price of wine by bottling her own; another about the budgetary benefits of turkey-wings, instead of steak. Still another suggested a diet of comedy videos, and Francesca, trying all of the above, complied on the Saturdays of every second weekend, stopping early evening at the video rental shop and picking up four comedies. And between the first and second, it was turkey wings and wine, and by the time she had finished the second comedy, she’d be sobbing in the shower, willing the drumming water to drown her pain.

On the Sunday morning, she’d open her front door, look both ways, and pluck the paper off the porch. Lest the neighbours see her, lest they had heard, and she’d do it all over again on the Sunday – into the office to work, home to the videos, turkey wings and bottle of wine, howling in the shower. Simple math: 52 divided by 2 multiplied by 4. By the end of year one, she had watched 104 comedies. It hadn’t worked. The tears kept coming. Despair was Satan’s work, she’d been told by the nuns. But how cruel was that, as if we have any control over it? Doesn’t it take what it takes?

“One day, you will be walking across a park and unexpectedly realize the monkey is off your back. You will feel lighter, somehow, like you used to feel, and you will wonder a moment, what’s up, before you realize you have survived, the worst is over.”

“Really?” she would ask of the particular client, dispensing a wisdom not learned from books. “Really?”

“I promise.”

And so, her clients had given her hope.

She thought she knew all about grieving. About the five cycles. That anger was one of them. And she knew that anger was empowering, as she would tell all her clients – use the anger, but don’t get stuck in its groove, because if you stay there too long, you begin to stink like a tire in a snowbank, spinning and spinning. Don’t spin. Use it. And so she had used it.

Still, after a year, Thursdays would arrive, or the Fridays of every second weekend, and she would start crying the moment her son left in his father’s van, and she’d suffer every minute he was late getting home.

So she ordered the truckload of topsoil and had it dumped onto the driveway, thus forcing herself to begin shovelling the moment the van drove off with her son.

Out there in her boots and her work-horse gloves, the ones her husband had bought her the last Christmas, she’d throw her back into it.

“You must love gardening,” a neighbour chirped from the street, one she had never noticed before but who had obviously noticed her.

Francesca paused with her shovel and answered from the terrace, “Why ever would you think that?”

“You’re at it all the time.”

“Actually,” Francesca said, “I hate gardening.” And she plunged her shovel back into the earth, severing a root like an artery.

Gardening was something she had done with her husband. Perhaps the only thing they had in common, apart from their son.

She promised herself that when she moved the pile, grief would be over. She was forty-five, that summer of her grief pile.

Her husband arrived to pick up their son. He had taken to saying, with that half-smile of his, “I see the dirt pile is still here.” He had a Sicilian’s refined sense of how to turn the knife into the wound.

She said nothing, and then nothing, until one day she burbled the words to a former client, a man who referred to her other clients, his professional colleagues. She hadn’t told him she was separated, but he must have heard, through the grapevine. It happened on a weekend, between movies, when she answered the phone. “Counsellor, I hear you have that cold again.”

“Oh Mr. G.,” she had howled shamelessly into the phone, calling him formally, by his last name, between sniffles, “it’s not a cold. Every time he arrives, he says to me, ‘I see the dirt pile is still here.’”

“When does he arrive, to pick up your son?”

She told him the days, the time.

“I will be there. I will wear my spandex bicycle pants and my muscle shirt. I will arrive in a rag-top Camero.” And as she laughed at the vision this conjured of the man in the business suit she knew, he asked, in all seriousness: “Do you have a shovel, woman?”

Normally, he called her “counsellor,” or formally, by her last name. This time, he called her “woman.” It stirred something, not unpleasant, something she’d thought dead.

“I have a shovel.”

That evening her husband arrived early – the only time he ever had. The former client had not yet shown up. Her husband said, “I see the dirt pile is still here.”

“Yes. But by the time you bring back our son, it will be gone.” She smiled, not doubting for a moment.

Mr. G. arrived, dressed as scripted. Magnificent. His six-foot-two, hockey-player frame, white muscle shirt, work boots, spandex bicycle shorts. She didn’t know where to look.

Without talk, he shovelled and dumped the basketful of dirt into the wheelbarrow, which he ran to the back of the house, behind the tree-fort willow. And she matched him, basket for basket, fuelled by an energy not felt since giving birth, watching the pile reduce with each shovelful. Halfway through her dirt pile, an hour left to go, they amended the plan. Dump the dirt behind the maple tree, closer to the house, then amended again, scrapped the wheelbarrow, and hauled the dirt directly onto the terraces.

But what was that, about the spandex? She glanced sideways at this Adonis of a man, who had to have known, and felt herself blushing, at forty-five, for the first time in her life. Didn’t that take a sense of humour, to wear spandex, to know that size really does matter, and bicycle shorts emphasize the size of a man, and the impact he would have had, not so much on her, but on the errant husband? Mr. G. was making her a gift – not just of his work – a gift of selfless self-display, tongue-in-cheek, for the gratuitous, benefit of another – something of a charity benefit concert. And his knowing, from a male’s perspective, what would drive a husband crazy – this display of competence, that she didn’t need him, after all. And the suggestion that the husband had been replaced.

“She will never be able to maintain the house, the gardens, without me,” the husband had said to mutual friends, never suspecting how those words would ignite and fuel her.

“Oh, won’t she? Just watch me!”

That’s some strong woman, said the eyes of the man. She caught him glancing at her appraisingly, as she carried those basket loads of dirt up the terraces, with her work-horse gloves. Did it matter that the compliment came from a man in spandex bicycle shorts, with a gold religious medal at his thick male neck – gold medalist that she was, with all her awards in criminal procedure and civil litigation? Damn straight, it mattered.

They worked with a unity of purpose she had never experienced in the marriage – a silent complicity. Did it have to do with his having been betrayed by an unfaithful wife or her having been betrayed by an errant husband? Did it matter? As the pile of topsoil reduced, she hesitated and surveyed the residue, and the man must have read her thoughts, for he again broke silence.

“Do you have a hose, woman?”

“I have a hose.”

“Then get the hose.”

What was left, he caused to disappear, leaving a driveway pristine and chastened.

As Mr. G. showered off in her master bathroom, she threw the steaks onto the barbeque.

Her son arrived back from his visit, ran up the terrace stairs and around the house to the back patio. Her husband drove off, never did see the man who came to her assistance that night, but he could not have missed the rag top, nor the driveway. She didn’t have to be out the front, watching, to know how his face would have dropped. Never again could he say to her, “I see the dirt is still here.”

As the man tucked into his steak, hair slick from the shower, now in khaki slacks and a golf shirt, wordless in his hunger, her boy crawled onto her lap. He asked if he could have the steak on her plate. This was the year when her boy – fearful of missing anything – would lie about having eaten with his father, and so eat twice. And so, she sat with her boy on her lap, tucking into his second dinner of the night. She sat very still, barely breathing, her chin buried in the sweet-smelling curls, and gazed shyly over at the man who had just helped her move a mountain.

The dirt she had bought and paid for – as if that weren’t special enough. She had moved it, with another.

Putting her back to it, lifting her face to the rain, that year she dared not expect for herself. But she was laying the ground, for whatever, she knew not what. Perhaps a miracle. Or happiness. Whatever came, at very least, her garden beds would be ready.

Darlene Madott is a Toronto-based lawyer and the author of several books. “Making Her Garden Grow” received Honourbale Mention in the 5th annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest. 

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