Mary’s Garden



He’s missing a garage door opener. He recalls only the idea to remove it from the van in order to prevent a break-in. The neighbors have reported a number of incidents of thieves rifling through vehicles and taking the remotes in order to gain access to garages in the middle of the night. It’s been moved and it’s location is now a secret. He searches likely places, but there is no more time. He’s already five minutes late for the appointment – loading tools into the van will have to wait.

He’s being introduced to Mary by Brianne – family friend and a kind of caretaker. Brianne arranges the incidentals of Mary’s life – grocery shopping, appointments, and now him. He’s being presented as a helper – a set of hands, someone to water, cut lawns and especially to weed gardens laid out in strips around the property.

It’s a hot evening and as they make their way up to the house he sees the parched earth in the flower beds, the scattering of growth and the unkempt lawn. It looks like a lot of work.

The age of the house is evident. It is fronted on the perimeter by a formidable wrought iron gate in an elaborate frame painted silver (some thick liquid application that might be illegal today) – no signs of rust. The concrete steps are beginning to crumble. At the back there is a small shed, a garage and at the footing of the home is a cast iron coal chute – a great pan lid, single hinge and handle.

Mary appears at the glass pane and releases a couple of locks to open the back door. She is gaunt, and bent with eyes magnified by glasses. She has white hair, not yellow or grey and it’s voluminous, kept tidy by bobby-pins applied at unlikely angles – one or two left dangling having missed the mark.

He is unable to read her demeanor. Old age has disguised all of the signs. A grimace may be a smile, a nod might instead be something else and he becomes gentle by default. Her speech is hesitant – evidence of an internal argument about content; her words are considered and he wonders momentarily about the route they take from idea to air. He offers his hand and takes hers – strong skin and bones. Mary shows them pictures of the property’s past glory – thick layers of color-filled beds, immaculate presentations, floral finery and imaginative collections planted strategically in order to celebrate form and order – two necessities of life; a well-tended garden reflects the constitution of its creator.

The conversation begins with the last person trusted with the job and she looks at Briana.

He took my tulips. Every time he came there were tulips missing. And he left the grass on the lawn. He never raked. He didn’t even move the downspouts – he mowed around them. He said he would take the weeds out, but all he did was turn the dirt. I went out and looked.

You won’t be missing any tulips when I’m done. I promise.

He phones first and establishes a best time to arrive. He is prompt and she answers the back door on the first ring. Her speech is slow and intentional – his becomes the same in consideration. There are incidental asides, pleasantries to exchange before the conversation turns to the order of the day.

I was born in this house. My brother and I. He flew a bomber in the Second World War. A Lancaster.

I grew up in Wildwood.

Be sure to take the weeds out. All that Creeping Charlie – it’s a mess. Do you know what a Tiger-Lily looks like? There are a few over there between the tulips. And take that mess out – that came from the neighbour’s yard – this used to be a chain fence and that mess grew across. I don’t want it anymore.

Of course, I’ll ask if I have any questions.

He begins by edging the grass and then cutting all of the lawn. It’s parched and the mower blows dust and dry grass. Near the Northwest corner of the house is a huge apple tree, one thick limb hangs low across the yard and he runs into it head-first three times before learning caution.

Halfway through the process Mary is at the walkway to check that he’s removed the downspouts.

Do you think I should buy some fertilizer? I’ll be going to the garden store tomorrow.

No, let’s just water it for a while. I think it’ll come back nicely.

The hose is on a rack beside the house – the sprinklers are in the shed at the back. She fumbles with a hinged leather key-case – the clasp is giving her trouble and he has to check himself to allow her time to master it.

In the shed he pauses and takes inventory of the antiques stacked neatly on the shelves, scissors, lamps, edging shears, and balls of twine. In a pail near the door is a Weedex wonder-bar and he remembers using these as a kid – a wax-like three foot bar of yellow soap filled with DDT – ideal for killing dandelions and for interrupting the life-cycle of birds.

The hose extends all the way around the house – there is plenty of slack – and he sets the sprinkler on the first quadrant checking to ensure coverage.

Kneeling at the soil, he notes its moisture content. Just below the first inch of dry plate there is cool, moist loam teeming with earthworms. That would explain the robins. There are always four of them at the back on the garden and the grass, especially now that there is water on it.

There are magpies across the street – a mass of twigs in a huge lilac betrays the family home – the squawking is incessant until a fight with a local murder of crows scatters the whole issue and quiet descends.

The work is tedious and his mind wanders. Thoughts begin to knit and weave, ideas, stories, pieces of whim that fill the void between task and intent. And then in the middle of the day, standing and surveying the work, from somewhere inside there is an awakening. He becomes removed from himself and aware of the quality of his movements. All his actions are observed and he is approving the completion of each task – checking its integrity before he moves to the next. Some of them are repeated, a second swath with the mower, a more careful examination of the seal at the spigot, another turn of the trowel to make sure, and this building of a finished product instead of performing these old tasks by rote adds length and quality to the day itself.

Before leaving he reports his progress – rings the back doorbell and waits.

That was two hours Mary.

How do you know? You don’t even wear a watch.

He pulls his cellphone and presses the home button to display the time, faces it toward her.

I use this.

Oh, I don’t have any kind of gadget like that. She is smiling.

She asks how to spell his last name so she can get the cheque right – can’t find him in the phone book.

He is tempted to ask her to look him up on the internet, but instead asks if she has a computer.

Oh, no. My sister and I took some computer lessons once, but all the people we were going to email died.

Each time he arrives there is a flat of bedding plants, discussion about placement and she presents him with a cheque for the last visit.

Pleasantries are exchanged, plans and priorities discussed, tools organized and then he is happy to get back on his knees at the edge of the dirt.

He is surprised to hear her voice behind him on the walkway.

I’ve changed my mind, I think I’d like those petunias out front – from the edge of those tulips back to there.

Her hand points at the fence rail. He is about to turn away to gauge her intent when she makes a little noise and teeters a bit on her heels. He is up instantly and instantly beside her with one hand at her shoulder blades – the other at her left elbow, and he is astounded to discover that she has no weight. His mind calculates her presence and his reaction. The most profound sense of gentleness infuses him: she’s as light as a feather.

Are you all right?

Oh, it’s nothing, I’m ok. My batteries are getting a bit low. I’m ninety and then some. I need more naps than I used to. She is laughing.

Save that paper on the back porch – I use it to dry weeds – it makes the bag lighter when they’re dry. Oh, and I want to split that patch of Pyrethrum Daisies, leave two thirds and you can take the rest home if you want.

What are they called?

Pyrethrum – like pie. Think apple pie.

Before he leaves, he looks at the plot of lawn and the clean flower beds out front. The last task is to put a little water on them, it feels good to see it tidy – and he might not get back for a few days, it’s become practice to let her know.

I put the garbage bin out into the alley for pickup. Yours is tomorrow? That’s the same as ours. I saw you cut back the rhubarb, I put that in the bag as well.

Thank you.

And I tied up the Peonies.

Oh good, they’re about to fall over. When are you coming again?

How about Friday about six in the evening? I’ll call first.

Six O’clock. Don’t you eat dinner?

He remembers putting the opener in his boot at the front door. Yes – that’s it. But when he goes to check it’s not there. Instead, lodged inside at the heel of the boot is an apple – and now he remembers doing that, but can’t recall why exactly – it was likely a reminder to throw it to the deer on his next walk with the dog – he’s done that before – but he still doesn’t have a garage door opener.

He’s looking forward to Friday, it’s a relaxing walk down the block and the lawn and gardens look like accomplishment. At Mary’s house flowers are blooming and she knows where everything is.