Glads, she calls them. After a moment I make out that ‘glads’ is short for gladiolas. She does not mean what makes a person glad as I first thought.
“I’m digging my glads today”, she announces, the first thing out of my mother’s mouth. Does she think I’ve come all this way to hear about her garden?
Does she know it’s me? Has she erased me from her memory, or has time? Somewhere, years ago we stopped talking, stopped being mother and child.
“I’ve got to care for the glads.” she repeats. I gaze at the flower bed. At her glads. So the end of September is the time that gladiola bulbs need to be taken out of the ground. Does it have to be today? If she left it until tomorrow it would be too late? The streets of this old village are lined with huge trees ready to shed leaves, to bury everything, at the first wind.
Her glads, those sickly yellow spears, might as well be called sads. Or pities, like the peonies that have long ago lost their blossoms. And me…? Unwanted.
“I’ve got someone coming today. To prep the garden for winter. This is a busy day.” She’s eighty-one in another month, but her voice is forceful and sure and her movements easy. Easier than mine; the arthritis that plagued my father belongs now to me.
“I had no idea you’d be coming.” She shakes her head. “Today of all days. Really. You couldn’t call ahead?”
Perhaps she has me confused with someone else, but then she asks me plain, “Why didn’t you phone first, Janice? Before you landed on my doorstep, on my gardening day.”
I’d imagined a good many things that might happen at my return; her throwing her arms around me, her weeping, or initiating some wary questions about my life, or statements of how difficult our estrangement had been. Even bitterness and exchanges of hate and disappointment would not have surprised me. But I had not imagined this claim. I’ve interrupted her and that I should have known better. Monday is for laundry, Tuesday is for dusting and the garden day is the Holy Day. I’d forgotten the designated day thing.
She doesn’t wait for me to speak. She walks past me to another flowerbed. I would recognize her back anywhere; it’s an old signal for belligerent silence. She’s dressed for action, in tidy yellow and green gardening clothes, appropriate, ironed and stylish, like she were in a theatre production, cast as an old lady gardener. Her hair is white and cut in a smooth wedge and looks smart in the ball cap that matches her cotton gloves. I sense a closet full of other ensembles, matching accessories included; designated.
I remember once, she wore a periwinkle sash on the crown of a hat, the ends tied under her chin. I told her it was absolutely stupid. Oh, the anger confused as wisdom by a teenager. It is suitable and stylish, she told me, looking aghast at the headband of leather that I had stretched across my brow.
She’s so phony. My teenaged self, emerges in my 60 year old mind, assigns this old label. And like I am the helper of the moment, there to serve her needs, she sends me to fetch a fork from the little garden shed.
I've matured. Haven’t I? Gerald and I raised a family and dealt with life’s ups and downs. I do understand. She’s planned on bringing in the gladiola bulbs today and that’s what she will do. Her ways are set in cement; right beside her heart. I don’t understand. I fetch the fork.
I traveled today to be here, across the province of Alberta, a four and a half hour trip, but more than miles have separated us. Hills of disappointments, valleys of hurts. Each of us staking the place where we would not forgive. And yet.
Now she plants the fork into the rich loam soil, the tines pierce deep. “The more I get done myself, the less I’ll owe my helper”, she tells me. “It’s the composting that I’ve done, that your father thought was a waste of time, that’s made the soil so nice. Isn’t it lovely?”
She expects me to answer that? I take a deep breath.
“Gerald died. In June.”
She looks puzzled.
“Gerald. My husband of 35 years. The father of my two children.” Did I have to spell it out? She was at our wedding. Her eyes drop to the garden fork that is at the edge of some yellow spears; more gladiolas.
“Everybody dies eventually.” She continues to knife the soil. “Your father took over a year to die after his stroke.” She lifts the fork, moves it and places her foot on it again.
“Such beautiful soil. It took a lot of effort to get it like this. When I started it was backfill, nothing more than clay. Hard like you wouldn’t believe.”
Hard? Gerald would ask me, what possible reason does she have to shut you out? Then he’d say. She’s one difficult and stubborn woman. Thank God, you aren’t anything like her.
I came to give her a chance. One honest chance, one- forgive and forget and we’re family after all - chance. I didn’t phone; I didn’t think she’d take my call. I didn’t send a cards or a letter; I believed they’d come back unopened. I came to Dad’s funeral; I sat at the back of the church. I cannot start by telling her this, it is too accusing. I swallow. Why did I think that face to face was the right way to do this? I only see her face in profile; her attention is on the flower bed in front of her.
“There were gladiolas on your father’s coffin. There were from my own garden. Everyone said they were the loveliest they’d ever seen. It’s the soil that makes the difference. I tell everyone that. If you want to garden, you have to start with good soil.”
Is this her way of acknowledging her widowhood and mine? Has time taken away the sting of grief and left a triumph of gladiolas for compensation? Is that how it works?
The image of Gerald’s coffin, the flowers, the service, all comes back to me. I wipe away a tear, my gesture is unnoticed. She steps onto the garden fork again and the tines sink into the soil. Then she stops. She has spotted her helper, his van has parked in the drive way. “Any day is a good day, if it’s a gardening day.” She smiles at the young man who gets out of the van. The door reads Chris’s Lawn and Garden and in small print is my mother’s greeting. For a moment it seems the young man regrets his choice of motto. Old women and their gardens would be his bread and butter. He, I realize, is the person designated for today.
“I’m going now.” I say and she stops for a split second and then without glancing at me, she shrugs her shoulders. “I can see you’re busy.” I add. She nods, I think, in my direction, while she points out what the gardener is to do. I wait a few minutes but the two of them go right to work.
I came to see her, I came to try once more and now it is done. I ask myself if I’ve given her enough time, but the answer comes back. Yes. More time, even more effort will not make a difference.
The last time I see her, she is down on her knees; her concentration is complete. If you want to garden, you have to start with good soil. Or you have to put in a lot of effort to make it good. She told me that about her dirt. It seems enough for her.
Her helper digs as she gathers bulbs; her fingers in the soil that she’s worked so hard to develop. Her gladiolas will bloom again but I won’t see them; in this place there is no growth to anticipate, no buds to watch blossom and no lush harvest. For that I’m going back to my children and my life. I doubt if she will glance up as I leave so I don’t let myself look back.
Liz Betz writes from rural Alberta where she enjoys her retirement. She is particularly fond of late bloomers as she is one herself. Recent publications can be linked to from her website www.lizbetz.com.