A Different Kind of Summer

On this first day of summer, I find myself in a different place and setting than I’d envisioned.

We live in coastal Connecticut, and I write and edit, teach and conduct a choir.  My life between weekends is a wild card — I substitute teach, and I am never sure which age or subject I will teach from day to day. But in summer, I plant my garden, grow my flowers, and watch for the progression of plants that I knew as a child but lost, briefly, as an adult in Texas. In Connecticut and in my native Boston, Spring starts white and yellow and green. Forsythia and crocus, tulips and the first dandelion start the season. This year was cold in Connecticut. My lilacs bloomed only for a week, likewise my lily of the valley. But at least they bloomed.

Spring had been stolen, but I staked my claim for summer. I put in a garden — the “three sisters” at the back near the fence, four six packs of tomatoes (black Krim for novelty, Roma for canning, grape tomatoes for instant gratification, and Early Girl for slicing) in pots and cages. I awaited the usual signs of summer — the end of school, the opening of the Farmer’s Market, the first good beach day, the blossoming hydrangeas, the Apostles Fast where we eat vegan and the first ice cream after it ends. We had just set up a new computer, and transferred all my documents onto it. I thought I would divide my time between words, plants, sorting things (we have six people’s things and three people at home just now), cooking, and church, with forays to the beach and to my siblings’ homes to play with their kids.

Instead, I am roughly seven hundred miles from home. My mother-in-law had an injury from which she is recovering, and my father-in-law, the vibrant author and architect, successfully underwent planned surgery. I planned to come while they both recuperated the rest of the way at home. But several days after my father-in-law’s surgery, he unexpectedly died, peacefully, not quite three weeks ago. Of all the people in the family constellation, I was the one most available to help at this time. And I am glad to be able to do it. My mother-in-law came to help us every time I had a baby, for each of my husband’s ordinations, for the children’s graduations and major concerts, for our parish jubilees. It is a joy to be able to help her, instead, even if at this point she is doing so well that she doesn’t let me do much.

Before she was home, though, from post-surgical care, my first job was to prepare for all the relatives who came for the funeral. I made beds and cooked, not for the mercy meal but for the arriving people — my husband and his brothers, one sister-in-law and a bunch of nephews and kids.  My m-i-l came home the day before the funeral, and everything took shape from there. Then, one by one, the relatives went home. And now it’s a quiet life with just the two of us, as my mother-in-law masters doing her usual household tasks using the hot pink walker that the grandkids surprised her with and I reach the things that require climbing or stairs. She lets me drive. I go shopping and to church services. But mostly it’s a quiet life at home.

When we moved to Houston, the plants were different, and I went into mourning. I don’t want to do that again. Here, too, the plants are different, but I am working on learning them and celebrating. It helps that my ships were burned at the harbor; when I called home, I learned that critters devoured my garden some time between the last two rain storms, every tender talk and spindly vine gone. It’s a loss, but it’s also one less thing to worry about. I can buy vegetables later. Now, I am learning Michigan plants and enjoying what is. The white dander that floats into the garage is not milkweed, it’s cottonwood. And it’s everywhere. My hearty bushes of Andromeda and blue hydrangea are back home, but here I have delicate clematis and carnations in deep purple and vibrant pink. Both places have chipmunks, squirrels, and the sporadic rabbit, but here they have hummingbirds, which we entice to visit with a feeder and a hanging basket of red flowers.

I miss my husband, but he is everywhere here, in the photos and books, in the stories friends tell and in email and cell phone. I miss the ocean, but I hear tell it will still be there when I come home. I miss my local, church, and writing friends, but I brought my editing with me, on a flash drive. And time alone with this brave, beautiful, and intelligent woman is an incalculable gift. I am learning the wisdom that women pass to each other through osmosis — stain removal hints, habits of virtue and industry like cleaning the stove after each meal, putting the dishwashing liquid in a hand soap dispenser so there’s nothing ugly by the sink, which pan to use for what and why. I am learning to wear shoes while at home, to avoid injury, and new ways to set out a nice tea. I’m meeting the neighbors, who come with zucchini bread, banana bread, dinner, stories, love.

This isn’t the summer I planned, but Tolstoy’s three questions come to mind. This is the most important thing I can do now. And it is a joy and an honor to be able to do it.

Radishes

April is National Poetry Month.

When my children were younger, I went through a phase where I tried to get them to appreciate poetry by reading it to them at the dinner table. They were, at the time, the opposite of appreciative. It’s not that we didn’t read at the table — my husband had moved bedtime stories to dinnertime as their tastes went from Richard Scarry to “Lord of the Rings.” But they wanted stories, not poems. And especially not the poem that I tried to make them love.

I had chosen a Japanese poem, “The Man Pulling Radishes,” by Kobayashi Issa, who lived around the time America was founded. It’s a simple poem, not even a haiku (at least in English), but it encompasses so much. The translator, Robert Hass, is still alive, and I don’t know enough about copyright law to know if I can post his translation here, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Here’s a link.

I love the poem because in three short lines, Issa (and Hass) accomplish and teach so much:

– The man pulling radishes had nothing to use but the radish, but
– the man seeking his way didn’t know where he should go, but the man pulling radishes did, and yet
– the seeker will continue on his way, and the man with the radishes will keep pulling radishes.
– Sometimes all you have is a radish. God will make it enough.
– Even though all someone has to point the way is a radish, it’s enough to get you started.

Radishes are easy to plant, and are one of the first things to come up. And so this might set the time of the encounter for us — early Spring, and the seeker is out seeking, and the man who planted the radishes is harvesting them. Each of us has a task.

My children’s reaction, though, was horror at the idea of me reading poetry every night during great story time, followed by derision of the poem for its brevity and content. Radishes became a running joke. When they encountered a bad poem at school, they’d shake their heads and say something about it being worse than radishes. When my mother-in-law gifted me with a GPS, a glorious day for everyone I’ve ever driven anyplace, they joked that now I don’t have to ask men pulling radishes. Whenever I served radishes, they quoted the poem, and rolled their eyes. They brought me radishes on a plate when a poem I was working on was not going well. And when they learned that a place called “Radish Magazine” reprinted my Guy Soup recipe but that I had signed away the right to a reprint fee from the place it was first published, their laughter was complete. Mom and her radishes. The irony was that yes, I had been trying to point the way with the radish poem. Instead, I was afraid that I had ruined poetry — and radishes — for them forever.

But then something amazing happened. Their adolescence (April, 1999 – June 2014) ended, and they became lovely adults, some of whom appreciate poetry. And my adult daughter chose this very poem to post on her Facebook page for National Poetry Month. “Today’s poem is beautiful both in its simplicity and in all the years of solid joke material it’s brought us since its Lardas Family debut. This one’s for you, mom!”

Well.

Plant those seeds, whether radishes or love of poetry. When you harvest them, you can point somebody’s way.

 

Mulberries

Mulberries are far easier to pick than any other fruit.

You put your bag beneath the berries, and simply tap each berry from the side. If the berry falls into the bag, it’s ripe. If it clings to the branch still, it’s not yet ready.

You can wait. It will continue to be there.

My small Connecticut town is full of mulberry trees in the wild (technically bushes, but may are tall).

We’ve had several days in a row of stunningly beautiful weather, neither cloudy nor hot.

There are few things more peaceful than gathering (and tasting) purple berries under a blue sky.

It seems a simple, if quiet, way to celebrate freedom.

Photo: Mulberries, out of reach, by Ann McLellan Lardas

Planting with Purpose

Writing and gardening are closely intertwined in my life. I graduate, in July, from Fairfield University’s limited residency MFA program in writing. And I just laid claim to this patch of ground on the side of our house. For fifteen years it was in the shadow of a huge pine tree. When the pine tree came down, I was assured that the soil was so changed that nothing could grow. But when I came back from last summer’s ten day residency away from home, this vegetation greeted me. I have no idea what half those plants are. I love that they prove that something can grow in the space. But now it’s time to go for what I really want.

For Mother’s Day, I asked the young men in our house to please help me by preparing our vegetable garden (a small patch of ground roughly the size of a double bed) and this newly liberated area for planting. The vegetable garden has always been a little wild. My husband and I work at several jobs but none that pay much, so the “landscaping” of my garden depends heavily on discarded construction materials and ingenuity. The beans grow on trellises forged of tomato stakes and vinyl lattice trimmed from porches; the front border is made of cement blocks whose holes each contain a different herb.

This new space, however, will be something altogether different. I bought plastic fencing and fertilizer, mulch and rose bushes. The men and I pulled weeds, and they rotor-tilled the hardened ground, put up the border, spread the mulch and manure. On a day when the writing wasn’t going well, I took a shovel and dug four holes, one for each rose bush. I planted seeds I had chosen at the store, surprised by the combination I settled on. We watered the patch. We are waiting.

Before I applied for the MFA program, I was already a writer, had been paid to write, had edited an online magazine, had articles and even a podcast published, and had given speeches. Why, then, did I undertake an MFA in writing? For the same reason that it was important to weed, fence, and prepare the soil for the new flower bed. The vegetable garden feeds the body. The roses, sunflowers, cosmos flowers, petunias and lavender that I planted where that chaos had reigned will feed something else. But they couldn’t grow without the structure. And I applied for the program because I needed the same preparation.

I had taken a hiatus from active publishing and lost touch with my writer friends while my children were teenagers. When I came up for air, I needed peers, mentors, new technical skills, and inspiration. I found them all in this program, and now I am applying what I’ve learned about writing to my life, for which gardening supplies so many metaphors. When I am launched, in July, into the pool of gracious, generative, funny and talented alumni who have helped me so during the past four semesters, it will be time for me, also, to bear fruit.

I welcome the strange plants that appear in my mulch pile, and if they are hearty and desirable, I transfer them to the garden. But I have learned that if I do not plan and plant, weed and tend a garden, something will grow there, and it won’t be what I want. It might not even be something I recognize.

And so I embrace serendipity in my writing, at the seed rack, in my garden, and in my life. But serendipity works better if you’ve first rotor-tilled and mulched, set up a border and defined what it is you want to grow. There have been years when both my writing and my garden  had to lie fallow.  But now, it is exhilarating to plan and dig, to till and weed, to write and edit, to plant, and to submit.

I look forward to sharing what grows.

Photo: This is the before picture of my new attempted flower garden. Copyright: Ann McLellan Lardas