The sticky latch on an old iron gate clicks open, and a flood of memories rush through my head. It’s been twenty-four years since I closed one just like it behind me. I was nine months pregnant with my firstborn, and the moving men bet it was a boy based upon the shape of my belly. I’d never again pass through that gate and walk under the towering pines toward the rhubarb patch, the vegetable garden, and find a spot in front of the fish pond to watch the frogs come out to play on an early summer evenings. Everything was blanketed under snow that night, masking the pain of leaving my beloved garden behind—even though the one I would be tilling later that coming spring was larger and just as verdant.
Feeling the soil between my fingers and rejoicing in the catharsis of pulling stubborn weeds, conjures my earliest memories of my father, who taught me everything I know about gardens and gardening: tending to his roses, pruning the fruit trees, and planting vegetables every summer for glorious fall harvest of tomatoes for canning, eggplants and peppers for frying, and cucumbers and lettuce for fresh salads. I recall the green and white striped caterpillars munching away, but somehow leaving enough behind for use to enjoy. He built his own pond and waterfall where I learned to care for the fish and a turtle named Napoleon while our bunnies hopped and ducks waddled around.
No one would ever believe that the waterfront of The Bronx, New York City, could be such a bucolic paradise, and many of those spaces have been paved over long ago. Most of the old boatyards along the East River and Westchester Creek are gone. The fig tree, the one by Clauson Point that produced bucket loads of sweet brown figs I picked (and ate) while the men readied their crafts for the long winter ahead, is a distant memory, and I am likely the sole survivor able to immortalize it with my words.
My father again had inspired me, always talking about Nana DePaola’s garden in Fall River, Massachusetts, from which he and his cousin Tomie (yes, The Tomie DePaola) would gather fruits and vegetables to wash under a spigot and eat in the shade of graceful trees. When I toured that garden with him Nana was long gone, but I could read the memories in my father’s eyes as he wandered, lost in thought.
The new garden I created 24 years ago boasts a towering pin oak tree shading a mammoth azalea bush that blazes with pink velvet every spring. It yields its glory to the peonies and roses, and finally the vegetable garden, and fig tree that delivers at least a few pints of sweet brown treats every fall. There is, of course, a fish pond devoid of frogs due to climate and environmental change and of fish, courtesy of raccoons and opossums that survive in the urban jungle of Queens, thanks to our waterfront areas and adjacent parks and wetlands.
I wrote in my diary siting in that childhood garden, and lost myself in books like Black Beauty, and The Black Stallion, and Little Women, and Nancy Drew as the salt air tousled my hair. I pulled crabgrass in my first garden, tears streaming down my face thinking about a friend, taken too soon—and ran in to scrawl my first piece of poetry about needing to accept the fact that there is always bad mixed in with the good no matter how hard you try to keep it away.
I now escape into my adult garden to prune and weed when I have writer’s block, and to rake leaves as I gather my thoughts into neat piles to be turned into rich brown compost to nourish future projects. And I sit quietly, ever hopeful, on spring evenings hoping that the frogs will come to sing and play in my pond, next to the fairy houses my husband so lovingly created, the faded memories of loved ones and gardens that are long gone joyfully dancing in my mind.
Gardener/writer Carol Ann Moleti has been gardening since she was old enough to remember. Her favorite thing about gardening is being surrounded by the sounds of nature, particularly waterfalls. When she’s not gardening, Carole writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy for adults. You can learn more about her at http://caroleannmoleti.com