Return to the Garden

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Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012

When I knock on her front door, she doesn’t know who I am. “Dobrý deň, Pani.” I hold up the bag of tomatoes from my mother’s garden. She knows that I live in Slovakia now. “Would you like some tomatoes?”

Dobrý deň,” she answers, still no recognition in her eyes. “Come on in.”

I follow her into the dining room. Maybe she just isn’t that excited to see me. We talk about the weather and the changing leaves until my mother comes in a few minutes later. I asked her to wait around the corner for a few minutes so that it could really be a surprise.

I look at her and shake my head. Her face goes pale. “Mom, it’s Julie.”

In my grandmother’s eyes, the turbulence of muddled memory. “No, it’s not! It doesn’t even look like her!”

“You shouldn’t let strangers into your house, Grandma.”

“Oh, I can take care of myself.” She shuffles around the living room and shows me the weapons she has hidden in strategic places – a hammer, a letter opener. And there is her faithful dog Chaz.

Her eyes hold no recognition of me, even as I walk out the door.

A few days later, she calls me. “I’ve got some stuff that needs doing around here.” Her memory is back. I grip the phone and sigh.

“You don’t have to do it,” my mother says, her face full of hurt. “She hasn’t seen you for five years and she calls you up to work?”

“It’s okay,” I say, trying to stifle the resentment. The only way to communicate with Grandma is to work for her. It has been that way ever since I was old enough to hold a paintbrush. “She’s eighty-eight. This is probably the last time I’ll see her.”

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When I show up, she takes one look at my clothes and shakes her head. “You can fill the bird feeders.”

As I carry the ladder across the leaf-strewn lawn, I step in dog shit.

“Oh, calm down. Just clean it off with a stick.”

I fill up the riding lawn mower with gas, take down some tools from high places and replace others.

“Let me drink a coffee and think about other things you can do.” She goes into the house.

I walk down the long cement path towards the sunken garden. The hedges are now trimmed by a landscaping company. It is paid for by my uncle. Grandma nags the workers and eventually fires them, so my uncle keeps rehiring new people. Midland is not a big city. There are only so many landscaping companies.

Her property spans three city lots. It is one of the largest private properties within the Midland city limits. My grandfather crafted it into three sections: a vegetable garden behind the house, an open field for sports in the middle, and a sunken Japanese garden at the very back. An A-frame tea house, a heavy stone lantern, a cherry tree, a stone waterfall, a cement pond. He fell in love with this look when he passed through Japan during WWII. Each of his seven children had their prom and/or graduation photos taken on the bridge over the robin’s egg blue-colored pond.

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When I was small, I would lose myself here. It was no longer Midland, but Japan, or some unknown mysterious land. I crept along the stone waterfall under the bridge. Distant sounds kept me just barely anchored to earth. Laughter and shouts from my aunts and uncles playing baseball. The meaty thuds of horseshoes hitting sand pits. The older generation’s game of preference. I explored every hidden corner of this sanctuary. Behind every bush and tree. Even inside the tiny copse where no one ever strayed. I wanted to see and learn everything about everywhere.

One by one, the aunts and uncles drifted away to the mountains and the far coast. I became too big to fit under the bridge. My brother, my sister, and I would climb up the A-frame, and then afterwards dig splinters out of our feet and hands with sewing needles. As a teenager, during a family reunion, I outdrank my cousin Tom back here. With the help of Great-aunt Monica, we had unlimited access to beer. He puked in the pond. I continued to drink and got sick on the living room couch. This was the first story Grandma told when she met my friends and boyfriends. I probably deserved it.

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I doubt she remembers this now. Such is the physics of our own individual Universe. We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion. The only thing that remains is I. A bewildering isolation.

Maybe I’ll be gone by then.

I sit on the stone steps leading down to the garden and watch the languid tumble of leaves to earth.

There are things I wish I had never seen or heard or done or felt in my life. Why did I have to go looking for everything?

The A-frame has been replaced by a simple square gazebo. Violets have overrun the stone waterfall. The bridge railings are loose; the wood is rotting. The only beings that hang out back here these days are deer and partying teenagers. I remember some kind of crisp, pine-smelling bushes, but they are gone, too. The pond is full of leaves and stagnant water. I will ask her if she wants me to sweep it out.

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76 thoughts on “Return to the Garden

  1. Such fine phrasing Julie, particularly in the paragraph “Such is the physics of our own individual Universe … ” The autumnal images fit the subject perfectly (nicer word than Fall 🙂 )
    Is this where your wanderlust was born – in a Japanese garden in Midland?

    • Thank you, Robin. The earliest memory I have of wanting to travel was when I watched Wild Kingdom on TV. I was probably 2 or 3. The garden certainly helped nurture the urge and so did wandering around my grandparents’ house. My grandpa and one uncle who went to Vietnam had brought back a lot of interesting artifacts to stare at. War seemed like a glamorous thing back then. It took you away.

  2. Autumn the season, reflected in the autumn of our lives and the slow decline of the property. An engrossing read. Such a large property for one, but it is always better to live in familiar surrounds in old age.

    Nice photos, too.

    • Thanks, LD. There was talk of selling off the back 2 lots – Grandma was okay with it – but it seems that having such a large property increases the value of the house, too.

  3. This post moved me. So much, I had to step away from it for a bit. You had me at Dobry Den…the language of my own grandmother. She died in her 50’s. I would hope that at 88, she would be as robust as your grandma in that photo. I love that she kept her beautiful space, and that she wanted to put you to work. I can relate to that. My MIL’s home stands empty, she is 86, and has been secured away in a strange, lovely apartment, with no hope of returning, considering herself incapable. It hurts to see. ❤️

    On a lighter note, raise your left hand, Julie, and point to the thumb area of that Michigan mitten. We spent 8 years in Jackson, and have many memories of snowmobiling in that area. ☺

    • Hi Van – It’s the same in both languages – Czech and Slovak. Grandma looks good for her age (that dark hair is real), but she is not robust. She’s like a walking piece of gristle. A botched back surgery has left her addicted to painkillers, hence the rapidly deteriorating memory. She is now 91. Since my visit, she has (accidentally, of course) set her kitchen on fire and had many other mishaps. My mother is totally stressed out trying to care for her, while letting her live at home. Yes, it’s good she’s still in her home, but it’s not fair of her to badger the hired help. The last guy who trimmed the hedges made her give his business card back.

      • Oh, my. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for…but feisty is good…usually. I can understand a bit your mother’s stress level; I wonder if the joy is spread to other siblings ?

        • Yeah, she’s fiesty all right. There’s one brother who also lives in town and helps out, but the rest are out West. They’ve started coming back, taking turns for a week at a time. They told my mother that they don’t know how she can deal with it.

      • Wishing I could share some of it with you dear friend … I feel you close by Julie even though you are on a different continent , you once said that the writers from Michigan had a certain le beau ideal ….it is you , you are such a fine one ….autumn hugs you back , love you , megxxx

  4. A melancholy loveliness. I especially liked this (in part, but just in part, because I watched “Still Alice” last night): “We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion. The only thing that remains is I. A bewildering isolation.”

  5. This was very touching and special to me. Very well written as always whereas, it takes you to that place and it feels like you are there experiencing it. Great job Julie! I was in the U.P. a few weeks ago and discovered that the leaves were still very green. I was disappointed and it seemed very strange to me for this time of year. No color here as of yet but, I am sure it will be soon.
    I mailed you fall leaves in one of my letters to you. It may of been the one that was returned to me. I saved them for you from last fall.

  6. Dobry den, jak se mate, Julie? The connect with you brings in a delightful compulsion to pick up some nuts and bolts of Czech. The revisit to your grandmother’s garden coincides, by design or otherwise, with autumnal blues and twilight years of the grand matriarch. It may be melancholia but with a difference, bordering on the cathartic; and, for me, getting to late night here in Johannesburg..dobrou noc…

    • Hi Raj – Thanks for the Czech greeting. Dobry Den is hello in both Czech and Slovak. The second part is slightly different in Slovak (ako sa mate), the language my Grandma learned as a child, but has mostly forgotten now. A matriarch she certainly is. Seven children, 23 grandchildren, of which I am the oldest. Wishing you pleasant travels.

  7. okay, I loved it, it’s like I was there living all those memories myself , and that is the most beautiful thing about this one. Compelled me to think about the ways of our world ! thank you!

  8. I admire the patience with which you tell your tales. The lush color in your photos complements the prose. You evoke the melancholy of aging along with the magical thinking of childhood.

  9. Sometimes we adult children feel we are sweeping out leaves and stagnant water each time we visit our aging parents and grandparents. I used to feel I was trying to brush away their mental cobwebs when I visited my grandmothers in their later years, all in the hope of finding some fleeting clarity of memory that lit up their faces. You are a good granddaughter.

  10. So nice to be reading (again) one of my favorite travelogues. Thanks J for sharing this wonderful story about your grandma. 🙂 Also, I love how yellow, orange the leaves are already and I wish we have that kind of Japanese zen garden.

    Warm hello from sunny SoCal.

  11. Really interesting. I can relate to getting lost in the gardens, and having a strained relationship with relatives… the photography is amazing, and really set the mood.

  12. I have come back to this post twice (as I often do with your writing). Over the summer months, I was involved in a huge de-cluttering project which was long overdo. While I think that most of my neigbhours labeled me as a hoarder, something that I started to wonder about myself, this project was about looking back. My father left me with slides and photos dating back decades. All those lives, stories, hopes and dreams are captured in the silent, smiling faces. Our lives intertwine and intersect with others, much like a open loop. Then there will come a time when individual loops will close and we are no longer able to connect within our existence. I would love to have coffee with my father, make apple pie with my grandmother, but that was for another time. I especially like these words:

    “We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion.”

    What is important, as you so elegantly demonstrated in your writing: that connections, hope and love are all that matter, the only things that are real. It is not our net worth or even our experiences that will be remembered. It will be those we loved and who loved us in return.

    I’m back to blogging and catching up with all of your wonderful posts. Take care and safe travels.

  13. Melancholy all over the place! My grandparents had a similar garden with a pond and a forest. If they would be alive they would have been far over a hundred years old by now. I miss all of that – I enjoy the memories though. But most of all I miss the beautiful autumn in my own country with the smell of wet leaves and the crisp air on clear days – your story took me back there as well. I went from Holland to Greece. The weather is much better here (more sun, less rain) but I guess that’s not what counts on a moment like this. Thnx for you lovely post!

    • Thank you, Ber. Those of us who had such magical places to explore in our formative years are blessed, I think. Autumn is a lot more subtle in sunnier places.

  14. I was in a garden today, a rather old one that sprawls between mountain range and long finger lagoons that run North-South. Old trees, living trees and fading trees, a place to become lost among all the greens, golds and silvers. I could easily fall lost inside your tales of history and time, distance and days; Where and however they chart.

  15. I enjoyed the layers of insight in this piece, Julie– the way work was the vehicle for relationship with your grandmother, the way a vision of Japan held a generation of children, the way we go away and come back and expand and contract into that mysterious ‘I’… And also the way what is at one time so vibrant dissolves– relatives move away, one afternoon of drinking with cousins haunts us long after… It captures the melancholy of fall’s passage beautifully…

    Michael

  16. Wow Julie, that’s one tough woman! I’ve moved around too much to have that one place to go back to and of course it’s something I always wanted. Your beautiful writing and photos remind me that nothing stays the same but certain memories stay with us forever, the past never being as far away as we sometimes think.

  17. I very much feel the autumn of my life myself and there is no beloved grandmother or mother anymore to visit, but I consider myself lucky to have a garden and to be in it to admire the colourful leaves. I would prefer to go to the end in that way instead of being in a modern and luxurious old people’s home where there is no work to do! Your pictures are beautiful and it’s a great pleasure to come back again to this post. Thank you, dear Julie.:)

    • Thank you, Martina. I feel like I’ve entered the autumn of my life, too. You have a beautiful garden. (I remember the photos.) I hope you can enjoy it forever. 🙂

      • It’s very good to know people of the same age group with similar feelings and I believe you , Julie, that you remember our garden and this is very nice.:) Have a nice evening.

  18. what a bittersweet atmosphere… your granny seems to me really similar to mine. For me too it’s true that the way to get in touch with her is to work. to do something together. The small corner of Japan in the garden is just amazing, me too i would have fantasized a lot in it.

    • Hi Cris – Unfortunately, I rarely worked with my grandma, just for her. She’d tell me what to do and then leave. I now appreciate how rare such a Japanese garden is for people with regular homes. Back when I was a child, it was just “Grandpa and Grandma’s garden.”

      • i can understand that it’s not easy to get in touch sometimes: people change, and also relationship. Mine with my granny is dual, we are tied by long bond but i’m not a child anymore, so…

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