By Emily Grosvenor
In the months after I became pregnant, my husband, Adam, introduced a forest of 37 tiny trees into our life. As I sat reading parenting books propped on my expanding belly, he was rescuing them from the sale section or pulling stray seedlings out of the mulch. He gave them new pots on the brick patio of our 1910 cottage. There, he would train them in the styles of the great bonsai masters: formal and informal upright, cascade, exposed root, windswept, literati, clinging to a rock.
To me, they were just one more thing to take care of, worse than a puppy. Given the right care – years of training and attention – they can live forever.
“Don’t you think you should be reading some of these?” I asked him, shaking a book on the Bradley Method in the air.
“Nah. You read them and tell me what you find out,” he said, humming and trimming.
A few weeks later, after 68 hours of labor, a hemorrhage, and four units of blood from a stranger – our baby was there. We drove him home as if we had an IED in the backseat, and in a way, we did. Adam lifted him gingerly and cradled him in the glow of a scraggly, 1.5-foot-tall Christmas tree.
When Adam gives you his attention it is as if your own personal sun is shining down at you. I could always feel it, even across continents and through a five-year long distance relationship. He’s a talker. He’s a listener. I had never known such connection before Adam.
From the beginning, though he had never before held a baby, he jumped into fatherhood with his whole being. He danced with the baby for hours. He rocked him to Johnny Cash’s “Run On” on repeat. I caught them once, laying on the couch in the dark.
“In a way, he justifies every mistake I have ever made,” Adam said. “If I had made the tiniest decision differently he never would have been.”
He carried the baby outside to his tiny forest and dangled him over the tops of the trees.
Adam snuck out every chance he could to spend time in his forest of azalea, juniper, maple, pine, santolina, devil’s tongue, flying dragon, crab apple. He trimmed, he repotted, he watered, but more than anything, he just looked at the trees, remembering what they looked like before and seeing how the changes he made to their structure would make them prosper. In the tiny forest, the trees were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were becoming more and more like themselves, like full adult trees but on a smaller scale.
Inside the cottage, though I was deeply connected to my baby, I found myself feeling increasingly out-of-sorts. The baby’s screams were so piercing they made my arms tingle. When my milk let down, I broke out in hives.
Adam took the baby for me as much as he could, but I was always expecting a cry, always on edge, always waiting like a bell to be struck. If Adam took him outside so I could rest, I could tell you which brick they stood on. This is how it is supposed to be, I thought to myself. Every cell in my body has turned over. I am a good mom. Every day I thanked Adam for giving him to me.
With my child strapped to my chest I was free to never sit down again. I baked soufflés and fermented my own yogurt. I canned blackberry preserves. I outlined a novel. I cleaned behind furniture. I worked through every recipe in the Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook. My hunger went away, as if my frantic activity was enough to take sustenance from the air around me. I had figured this motherhood thing out. I had more energy than I had ever had in my life. But when I held my crying child, I thought about everything there was to be done, and when I worked during his naps, all I could think about was my child, about to cry out.
The night the baby slept through was the first I could not. I thrashed in bed until 5 a.m. The next night, the same. The click of a door latch. The mewl of the cat. The clink of a coffee mug. The sounds in our cottage amplified to Hitchcockian levels and sent my skin crawling. As the leaves changed color outside my mind latched on to increasingly more disturbing images, as if my mind were a movie real of worst-case scenarios.
“What can I do to help you?” Adam asked me more often each day.
“Get me some time to myself so I can work,” was the only answer I had.
After three months of not sleeping, the walls of our cottage seemed to close in. So one bright September morning I decided on the spot we had to get out of the house. We raced to pull together car seats, diapers and extra clothes for an overnight trip. It wasn’t happening fast enough for me. By my projections we should have left at 8:45 a.m. It was already 8:53. That’s how I ended up on the hardwood floor, breathing into a brown paper bag of branches from Adam’s lavender bonsai.
It might have been a tad late for aromatherapy.
That spring, Adam repotted all of his bonsai as I sat staring at the television. I watched him as he petted them gently and spoke to them. I seethed as he stood in the rain, looking joyous and entranced in his work, covered in mud. Did I remember what the juniper looked like before he coaxed it into a cascade? Could I envision the way the fig had all but shriveled before he poured himself into its care? When he held me at night – as he always had – I felt nothing. During the day, with him gone, working a 12-hour shift, I would rock with our baby at the window and imagine all of the pots – smithereens.
“Can I be your bonsai?” I asked Adam one evening as I watched him hack away at the root bundle of a burning bush. I was aware of how ridiculous I sounded.
He tucked my hair behind my ear, looked straight in my eyes and said: “You don’t want to be my bonsai.”
“Yes, I really do,” I told him.
“You wouldn’t want your roots pruned,” he said.
Bonsai are not very menacing, you know. They’re not some sexy co-worker or flirty neighbor. If you find yourself unraveling and you get it in your head that your husband’s having an emotional affair, you would do well to find out it’s with bonsai. With a bonsai, you have to look into its future and anticipate how it is going to grow. If you try to change a bonsai too quickly it dies. It requires years of focused attention with each individual tree to get it to get that wabi-sabi look of transience and imperfection.
I was desperate to look like that, desperate to be everything and perfect and under control. but felt more like a mass of seaweed tangled around a piece of driftwood, floating, always floating, with the storm.
Adam had never once in our relationship forced me to do anything, but for the first time, all I wanted was for him to shape me. Rewire me. Repot me. Look at what’s happening to me and fix it. Care for me like I’m doing for this plump, wailing ball of skin.
“What are you thinking about when you’re out there with them?” I asked him one night, and on many nights thereafter, as I stood on the porch step watching him with his bonsai.
“I’m not thinking about anything. I’m thinking about what I’m doing,” he said.
This sounded like baloney to me. I have always dreamed while I was doing things: sweeping, laundry, perhaps even typing this very sentence. I wasn’t sure I was capable of it for very long. But I began to try anyway. As I was driving, I would sense the grip of my hands on the leather wheel. Doing dishes, I would feel how the water slipped over my hands. I did less – every day even less than before – but I began to really do it, was there as it happened. When I held my child I caught the scent of soap and skin with a hint of fir. Over time, I was able to rewire myself, but not without some mistakes.
“I’m glad you have time for a hobby!” I yelled at him once as he shuffled pots around.
When I look back at Adam in our first year of parenthood my heart crumbles for him. He coped with a colicky baby and an exasperated new mother in his own way. He watched me wither before his eyes and didn’t have the tools to bring me back. Still, he was playing out a scene of something I needed that every new parent figures out eventually, with or without nervous exhaustion: constancy, presence, the repeated cutting and trimming out of all necessary things we must do in order to shape a beautiful life.
“I know and control nearly all of the variables in which those plants live,” he tells me one night when I ask him again if I can be his bonsai. “Everything I do is with the idea of keeping them as healthy and contained in as small a space as possible, which may not be in tune with their natural growth. If you know how a plant grows, you can predict how they’re going to react. You can’t do that with people.”
Adam’s been watching his plants a lot lately, and I’ve been watching Adam. I see him out there working on our spruce halfway to Christmas. God, are they gorgeous. It looks more like a real tree now, with tapered branches, a bound and determined habit, every one of its needles stretched to the sun.
These days, we joke about what kind of bonsai we would be if we, too, were tiny trees. We both agree he is totally the style called “informal upright,” with a trunk that can be bent in many directions. I’d like to be the “literati,” which has a refined elegance despite looking like it is about to blow away. But I’m probably “clinging-to-a- rock.”
Emily Grosvenor is a magazine writer and essayist based in McMinnville, Ore. She is working on a humorous travel memoir, Pioneer Perfume, which shows what happens when you try to maintain the attitudes of a globetrotter in a world that has shrunk to a 30 ft. radius. You can visit her at www.pioneerperfume.com.
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