Author Ranjit Souri reads “Tribute to a Gardener” for Chicago Public Radio’s 848. Audio courtesy CPR.
“Have you seen my petunias?” my mom would ask. Her face would glow like that of a child on Christmas morning.
My mom had many skills, but gardening was her passion. I marveled at the amount of work she invested in her flowers, bushes, and vegetables. For most of my youth I could not understand why she worked so hard at her gardening.
When my mom was in her mid-30s, a degenerative disease took root inside her that would spend the next 15 years methodically ravaging her body and destroying her quality of life.
As Mom’s health deteriorated, the things she loved to do were gradually taken away from her. First, she could not sew anymore. Then she could not play the piano. Finally she could no longer garden on her own.
Still, she insisted on gardening.
She needed somebody else to do the physical labor. Sometimes she would hire another boy from my school. Sometimes my dad would help her. And sometimes she would ask me.
She would sit in a lawn chair—in later years, a wheelchair—and painstakingly instruct me. “Dig a small hole there.” “Cut off that branch.” “Fill the wheelbarrow with dirt from the garage.” “Hammer that stake further into the ground. Make sure it’s straight.” “Put three or four seeds into each hole.”
When I asked Mom why we should put three or four seeds into each hole, she explained that most seeds will not germinate; and of those that do, many will still not successfully grow into plants.
One humid afternoon while we were gardening, Mom asked me to go inside and bring her some water. When I came back outside with the water I saw her trying to get out of her wheelchair to stand up.
I felt a sharp annoyance at this sight—why was she trying to do something so dangerous? She could easily fall and get injured.
I rushed at her and shouted, “No, Mom, don’t!”
She fell back into her wheelchair and began to cry. Through her tears she said, “I wanted to see my vegetables.”
Her wheelchair was facing away from the vegetable garden.
Suddenly I felt profoundly ashamed. I collapsed onto my knees and laid my head on Mom’s lap as lightly as I could, to avoid hurting her fragile body. We held each other and wept bitterly. We wept for everything that she had lost. For all of her loves that had been taken away from her. And for this one last passion that she refused to let go of, even to the end of her life on earth.
My mom died during the summer of 1994, just a few weeks after her 50th birthday.
What my mom cultivated in me was an understanding of the value of working tirelessly for what you love, regardless of reward.
Years ago, Mom would sow many seeds, knowing that most of them would die early deaths.
Today, I fill pages and pages of notebooks with words, knowing that most of those words will never be read by anybody except me.
But every once in a while, one of my seeds germinates. Soon a tiny green shoot pokes its way through the dirt. Later, the shoot grows into a plant. And still later, with a lot of sweat and a little luck, the plant produces a bright, full-fledged flower.
And then, pleased and proud, I ask my loved ones, “Have you read my new essay?”
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|