I woke up to great gardening weather today and vowed to put in some hard work for the bulk of the afternoon. In an effort to stay as safe as possible while still being able to access what I need, I dipped into the leftover mask and glove pile from my husband’s immunocompromised days, and headed to the hardware store drive-through to pick up more bags of online-purchased mulch. There was a line of gray hairs in their cars, doing the same thing as me. I glanced at my rearview mirror and saw a vehicle behind me, occupied by two older women, also wearing masks. The passenger side person wore her mask positioned slightly over her upper lip, leaving her nose completely uncovered. The driver’s mask came to a point somewhere in the middle of her philtrum, which is the technical name for the space between the nose and the mouth. All I could do was shake my head in exasperation while thinking, “we’re all doomed.” After all, a face mask isn’t exactly a complex piece of technology. No wonder the younger generation mocks the boomers.
While waiting for my order, I got a text message from my friend Randy, who in recent months, must￼ be going through boxes of things he hasn’t seen in awhile, because he keeps finding old photos of me. This one is somewhere between 35 and 40 years ago. I sat in my car staring at it, waves of nostalgia coming up from my depths. I remember having a reddish cast to my hair for a long time. For the life of me I have no clue why I, a person with naturally wavy hair ever chose to have a permanent, but the picture doesn’t lie. And try though I might, I can’t deny that at one point, a mullet was my hairdo of choice.
After retrieving my mulch, I drove home, but before I got to work, I paused to take a few photos of the blooms that had popped up in the garden during the last few days. Every spring I wait anxiously to see which of these guys made it through another winter. Many years ago, in a feeble effort to emulate Thomas Jefferson’s garden diaries, I started my own journal of every flower, vine, ornamental grass, shrub and tree that I’ve planted in this rich soil. The sad times are when they don’t come back, their pages marked with a “gone” date. The good times are when I marvel at the ones that reappear over and over for their brief moments of glory. “Still blooming,” I write along with the year. The saga of nature in my little world.
I take a minute to look up, always enjoying the mix of clouds passing overhead and the blue, blue sky. The transience of life is reflected in the overhead movement. The metaphor isn’t lost on me and somehow provides more comfort than uncertainty. Plugging in my headphones, my shuffling stations provide a rhythm for slinging pitchforks full of cypress bark over the remains of last year’s attempts to beat the weeds. I like laboring outside in this space which we wrested from neglect almost 42 years ago. The birds seem louder this season, maybe because the ambient sounds of city life are so diminished during this time of quarantine. They’re drawn here by protective habitat spaces, full birdfeeders and suet holders. Sometimes I play birdcalls on my phone to call in cardinals and wrens. My son taught me a universal psh-psh-psh sound that is effective in making curious birds come close. I don’t understand it at all but it works. I feel like a proletarian Cinderella when they flutter nearby. No helpful rodents, though.
I cover a good-sized area with a three inch layer of mulch. I’m having a good time. I start having the most peculiar but warming visions of Michael, working with his garden tools in what used to be his vegetable garden. He was tall and rangy, constantly hefting garden timbers and old paving bricks into geometrically balanced designs to enhance the looks of his edible domain. I stand still, literally watching a movie of him in my head, seeing him dressed in his old tank tops and baggy shorts, loving his time in the dirt. I drift to over to that space, happy to see that in the herb sections, his perennials are reappearing after so many years. I’ve turned that big area into a flower garden for pollinators but I left the chives, sage and thyme which smell delicious, are useful for my scaled-down cooking needs and are a sweet reminder of the happy seasons we worked together for so long. I still plant tomatoes and peppers but nowhere near in number to what my inveterate canner did back in his days.
My flowers are making an appearance as well. I planted a few new species of peony back there, along with butterfly bushes, bee balm, daisies and sunflowers. Rosebuds are already forming. Milkweed is ordered and will be delivered soon. I’m imagining days which combine both garden maintenance and relaxing, along with doing my part to help threatened monarchs. Last year was a good one for them but there’s a lot left to be done.
The day is coming along as I’d hoped. I do feel annoyance as I inspect the yard and find what feel like a thousand roofing nails and sharp strands of aluminum, cigarette butts and other bits of debris that were left behind by the construction crew who finally finished siding my house. I’ve been picking it all up and saving it in a big pile. All this accomplishes is getting myself annoyed, but I haven’t been able to stop yet. At least, I finally was able to get the wretched gutter-hanging job they did corrected. That was quite the battle.
Part of my challenge during this isolation period has been finding a way to feel productive. My life has felt unstructured for a long time, one of the pitfalls of both retirement and widowhood. I can’t go to the pool and I can’t take classes. I can’t attend meetings and can’t work from home because I’m jobless. I can’t volunteer because of social distancing. Don’t get me wrong – the luxury of this time is something I don’t take for granted. So far my pension and Social Security are safe. I have health insurance, food and utilities. I’m keenly aware that my issues pale in comparison to millions of people who are teetering on the edge of chaos. I hope not to lose sight of my privilege, ever. But there’s a lot of alone time for me these days, and as I reflect on how not to squander my time, seeing something concrete get done is really important to me. This afternoon is just what I needed. That is until one note of a song on my random playlist popped up and elicited an unexpected convulsive crying jag. It was Harvest Moon by Neil Young, one of a few tunes whose lyrics really brought the romance on for Michael and me. We used to dance to it￼ like young kids in what we called the “blue room” in our house, a simple way of directing the kids to go get something when they were little. “It’s in the blue room,” or “it’s in the orange room.” Easy instructions. Anyway, we’d press against each other and sway around, so happy that we hadn’t lost what brought us together after all our years. When Michael was in the hospital for 32 days, sometimes confused, flat and dark, I’d play Harvest Moon amongst a few other songs, and it never failed to bring him back from where he was, looking my way with love and recognition. I was suddenly a hot mess. I went into the garage and sat in my car, listening to every last note as I looked at the ratty old photo pin of the two of us, taken at Disney World about a million years ago, the pin that￼ dangles from my rear view mirror. I am still hopelessly in love with this dead guy and that’s how it is.
And then, the song is over. I blow my nose, wipe my eyes and go back to the garden, spreading every last bag of mulch until I’ve covered everything I set out to do this day. My body is tired but that’s just fine. I sit outside for a few minutes and realize that in four hours, I’ve felt so much. Exasperation, nostalgia, gratitude. Pleasure, feeling contemplative, annoyance. And finally love and sadness. I packed a lot into a little time, my actions with intent, my emotions flowing freely. I took one last look up at the sky before I went inside. There was a late afternoon moon overhead and I snapped a photo. The juxtaposition of day and night seemed a fitting way to call it a day.