By Sarah Bousquet
My mother looks up from beneath the brim of her straw hat, her hands patting the dirt around a new tomato plant. “Remember, we come from pioneers,” she says. “It’s in our blood.”
I don’t feel much like a pioneer as I dig into the dirt with my 2-year-old’s plastic shovel. I can’t seem to find the trowel anywhere. I’ve been shoveling and hauling dirt in the wheelbarrow, smoothing the area around the garden so a fence can be staked.
“Imagine growing all your own food? Imagine if that was all your family had to live on for the year?” She’s splitting the basil and plotting it out between the marigolds.
I shake my head. “I think we’d be malnourished.”
For a minute I try and imagine it, growing all the food we’d need to survive, and the staggering amount of work it would require. I’ve barely managed to get one garden bed planted, and wouldn’t have, if not for my mother.
I’d planned ahead and thought I had it so together. Years ago, long before I became a mother, I’d successfully grown a garden, even pickling my own cucumbers and cabbage. Somehow I’d forgotten about all the work.
In the Spring my husband broke down the old garden beds, and together we cleared away the dirt. For a while the wood beams laid stacked under the crabapple tree and my daughter would balance her way across them, finding the spots that bounced. We bought packets of of seeds, from arugula to pumpkin to habaneros. I had good intentions to make starters. Then the rain came and didn’t let up for a month.
Eventually my husband built a new garden bed from cedar planks. We had three yards of soil dumped in the driveway, which took many wheelbarrow hauls to relocate. I bought a few tomato plants and my daughter plucked off all the leaves. A woodchuck made his appearance, and I declared we would need a fence around the garden. My husband sighed, his enthusiasm for the project waning. By then we were well into June and I wondered if it was too late to begin planting.
That weekend my mother surprised me with boxes of plants, tomatoes and fennel, peppers and herbs, straw mulch and bamboo stakes.
“I didn’t have a garden when you and your sister were small,” she said. “It was too much work.” This is how my mom dispenses wisdom, in warm rays of commiseration and perspective.
I am surprised I need all this help. After two and a half years of motherhood, I still need tending.
In the months before I gave birth, a friend shared that old wisdom: when a baby is born, a mother too is born. Though I’d imagined what that meant, I couldn’t know how it would feel. Until I pushed through to the other side like a new green shoot.
At the birth center, my midwife gave firm, direct orders. Someone would need to go to our home and change the bed linens, tidy up, prepare a meal. After 48 hours of labor, I couldn’t recall how we’d left things. Maybe there was still a bathtub full of water. My mother listened carefully to the midwife’s instructions and left to make preparations for our return home.
In the blur of days that followed, sleepless and fragile, lying in bed with my newborn, I was consumed by the tasks of holding, changing, and breastfeeding, staring rapt at her new pink form. My mother’s presence drifted in and out, like warm sun, like gentle rain, giving what was needed. She would bring one-pot meals, chicken and tomatoes or hamburger stews with potatoes and beans, nourishing and simple, meant to show me, soon you’ll be doing this again too.
While I rested, she would undress my jaundiced infant and stand by the window, holding her up to the pale winter light. When I breastfed, she would say, “You nurse her like she’s your second baby. You’re a natural.” I felt a new version of myself, my mother-self, taking root, growing sturdy and determined.
Out in the garden, I water the plants while my daughter runs through the spray sending a misty rainbow into the air. She wanders with her shovel, digging in the dirt, her wet dress becoming caked with mud. As I round the raised bed with the hose, I notice the first green pepper hiding in plain sight, ready for picking.
I hold the stalk while my daughter plucks the pepper, biting into it like an apple, then offering me a bite. It’s mild and crisp, warm from sunshine, an altogether different taste from a store-bought pepper. We even eat the small stem and soft, white seeds. A butterfly hovers over a marigold and flutters away. Eggplant leaves sway.
That evening I call my mother to report our first tiny harvest. The garden is thriving with the exception of one stunted tomato plant. The others have grown taller than me, yellow flowers transforming to fruit.
“Remember, it’s an experiment,” she says. “You can see what does well and then decide what to add next year.” My mother’s words seem to be about something larger, and always reminding, in our perpetual state of becoming, if conditions are favorable and the weather kind, good things are likely to grow.
Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.