BETWEEN THE ROWS
My mother showed me how to plant peas when I was six years old: make a row of holes in the earth with your finger (“up to the second joint”), about an inch apart. Drop in the seeds, little white pills. Cover them and gently pack the earth. We’d water them, and a week or two later, there would be little sprouts poking through the earth, tiny stems with tiny leaves.
We lived in the city, but on weekends and during summer vacation we’d escape to the country house my father had built. That’s where the garden was. A land of barns and hay silos and tractors and cows. The smell of fresh manure permeated the car as we drove past fertilized fields. Gravel crunched under the wheels when we turned down our driveway.
My mother would set to pulling out the weeds that had flourished during the week. Some were as tall as the vegetable plants themselves, stretching their stems and flaunting their leaves as they sought to choke out their rivals.
“Up to the second joint.” To be honest, although I remember the words, I can’t remember her voice. She died when I was ten years old. When I replay my memories, I don’t know what voice to give her.
My father sold the country house a few years ago. He was in his late seventies; his health had deteriorated and he could no longer make the drive. While packing, sorting and culling books, my step-mom found a hardbound notebook with a blank cover. She handed it to me without explanation.
I opened to the first page.
A shiver started at the back of my neck, travelled down my arms, brushed my skin. My mother’s handwriting.
I flipped the pages one by one.
The musty scent of old paper rose from the pages as I fingered the smooth corners.
A gardening journal. Seed varieties and quantities. What had worked and what hadn’t.
My mother had also drawn plans. They reminded me of my father’s architectural drawings, all straight lines and square edges. Was she always this methodical? Maybe she’d read an article in a magazine about keeping a log.
There weren’t many entries. Most were brief: notes on whether the plants got too much rain or too much sun or were eaten by bugs, and how much was harvested. But after a while, the entries became more descriptive, mentioning a daytrip she and my father took to Morrisville, weekend guests, who planted what.
And then I saw my name. My heart leapt.
She was talking about me.
How does handwriting convey voice? How does it embody a soul?
There’s an intimacy. As if the ink has flowed directly from the person’s heart, through their arm and hand, and onto the page.
Somewhere in the slant of the writing, the crossed-out words and the spaces between the rows of script, I’d found the voice I was looking for.
I picture my mother in the vegetable garden, in her brown tank top and wide-brimmed hat, sun beating down on her arms as she bends over to pull out weeds. Face serene, lost in thought. In winter she’d sit at the dining room table poring over seed catalogues, circling varieties and taking notes. She’d start the seedlings indoors—tomatoes, peppers, celery. My father built her a rack with special lights. As soon as it was dry enough in the spring, she’d get my father to plow the patch with the garden tiller. It got a little bigger each time.
I had my own little patch in the corner. I planted carrots, lettuce and radishes. Cherry tomatoes, too. We marked out the rows with wooden stakes and string, just like in the big garden. But mine became overgrown with weeds very quickly.
I was more interested in roaming the field of tall grass at the bottom of the garden. It may have been hay or straw, but I called it oats, because the tops reminded me of the picture of oat branches on my morning Cheerios box. Toward the end of the summer, the stalks were taller than I was. I’d step through and they’d close behind me like a curtain, swallowing me whole. I’d try to run, laughing at the impossibility of it, and then let myself fall. The stalks would catch me, bending back to form a thick cushion, the dry ones poking at the skin on my arms and legs. I’d lie there listening to grasshoppers flitting and bees buzzing and stare up at the blue, blue sky.
After a while I’d return to the garden. My mother would still be there, weeding. She’d pause to push her glasses up with the back of an earth-covered hand. By this time of year, the rows of the garden would be leafy and full, prickly cucumbers poking out from giant dusty leaves, tomato plants bending with the weight of ripening fruit, string beans dangling.
After a rainfall, my mother would caution: “Never pick beans while the plants are still wet. They’ll get a disease.”
Funny, the odd bits you remember.