In the spring, I would lose my mother to gardens.
I, smaller and graceless, would stay inside reading, trying and failing to keep sight of her through the window. Eventually, she’d emerge from between the scented chests of lilac bushes, or straighten up with the irises. Plum blossoms caught in her hair. Dirt in the creases of her wrists.
We had a vegetable garden in our backyard that my mother tended diligently year after year. From the ground, she reaped tomatoes, green beans, zucchinis, scallions, and chives. The garden was shaded by the apple tree growing beside it, which would pop out small fistfuls of apples, sour enough that we couldn’t eat them straight. My mother would collect them to make applesauce or just boil them sliced with sugar. She never grew carrots. She told me that with one look at the soil we had, she knew it was too clayish for carrots to grow straight down, so she never bothered.
The garden found its way into our meals and my mother’s swiftness with all things made their move from the soil to the sink to the stove unexceptional. She, like my grandmother, whooshed through the home like breath, barely audible, imperceptible as things just got done, or replenished, sewn, and fixed. Returning home from school, I would open the back gate and see my mother crouched over the garden, her feet balanced on a plank of wood, shoulders working as she wrested weeds from earth’s hold. Her gloved hands would toss them onto the grass. From the back, her bent knees jutted out like wings.
My mother was always weeding. Our home was nestled in a bend on a boulevard so we had a fairly large plot of grass. While I recall weed killer and specific instructions to keep off the grass for some time, I would still find my mother in the warmer months, bent over, combing through and isolating the unwanted from the acceptable growth.
When I finally had my own yard to tend, I had hopes that I would create some lush oasis behind our new home. I received a headstart from the person who previously lived there. There was a small peony tree in the front yard, a flowerbed by the stoop, and another one along the walk leading up. Behind the house was a peony bush that poked out from beside a row of tall hedges. There were even empty pots in the shed, waiting to be filled, and four small plots in the backyard for herbs. It took me the first few weeks to realize that my attempts at maintenance were slovenly and, slowly, I came to plant grass.
Indoor plants I could always maintain and nurture. But I soon learned that I couldn’t keep up with, let alone combat, the elements. The peony tree didn’t survive our first winter in the house. It emerged from beneath the snow a brittle and jagged sight. It was a sad rough draft of spring and never flowered. I had removed the overgrown and unusable herbs the season before and the plots remained vacant, inviting neighbourhood cats to come by and relieve themselves. I replaced the flowerbed along the driveway with rocks because whatever I planted was soon trampled on by visitors who got out of their car and stepped immediately onto a flower, or by trick-or-treaters who tore through the flowerbed in the dark. While I managed to fill the flower pots in the back – my mother transplanted my grandmother’s calla lilies and assured me that this perennial would be easy to maintain – it became clear that I had become a grower of grass. I threw seeds like blessings, and replaced the waiting gaps with mere shoots.
In a book about gardening, the writer warns: “Do not avoid weeding. Putting off weeding is often a new gardener’s downfall because weeds can grow rapidly, and before you know it, they are taking over.” Our home, located at the bottom of a sloping street, was cupped by spirea bushes. Our yard easily collected the dandelion fluff from neighbouring homes. Soon, yellow buds were shooting up, along with pickle plants and crabgrass that netted over the rocks where the flowerbed once was. I found myself prodded by the writer: “Always remove weeds before they go to seed so they do not have a chance to spread!” Or, “Getting on your hands and knees is probably the best way to get rid of it.” Everything felt like an emergency.
Soon weeding became something that worked itself into my life. Upon returning home from the library, or the coffee shop where I laboured over a manuscript, I would pluck a few strays before entering the home and toss them onto the sidewalk where they shrivelled by dusk. But I noticed that once I bent down to start, it was hard to stop. My bag would drop to the ground and I would be on my knees – as recommended by the gardener – scrabbling through the grass. A few yellow heads soon became a pile. I’d step back and admire the uniformity of grass and rock. I became obsessed once I began, urged by the satisfaction of pulling each stalk so wholly that the roots would lift up the soil with each tug.
You know, they’ll just keep coming back, my husband said as he stood over me shaking his head. His shadow fell over my hands grasping at the unwanted shoots. Something moved me still, out of impulse, out of necessity. Why do you write? was a question that I was often asked and my answer for both weeding and writing was Rilkean: I must. Yes, there was something inherently futile with every weed I pulled, but I did so stubbornly, thinking of what Mordecai Richler said: Each novel is a failure or there would be no compulsion to begin again. I accepted this mundane hell of always starting over, condemned both at my desk and in my yard. I stuck to weeding the same way I stuck to writing, even after the countless number of people – often baffled family members – asking me what I was going to do with words. How will you survive on poetry?
There are moments that happen only when the sun is low in the sky and the noises of neighbourhood children begin to fade that I feel the overlay of my own childhood press down on the present. It isn’t intrusive, but it is palpable. It is, in short, just a sensation that I carry with me.
There was a park near where I lived growing up. Kirkbridge Park had a small circular bike path that, as a child, felt expansive. It seemed to stretch from one end of the world to the other, and there would be races and circuits that left one gasping, small legs aching from pumping the pedals. My favourite length of the path was flanked by marshy grass that hid the sounds of frogs and crickets. The long blades pierced the evening sky, coloured both by exhilarated freedom and the inescapable bike ride back home. In truth, the bike path was really very walkable. I discovered this only when I got older.
Tangential to the path was a short stretch of pavement that ended at the top of a small hill. It was known in the neighbourhood to be a risky drop on a bike, which was probably why the path wasn’t extended any further. Construction had stopped but the half-made path wasn’t removed for years, which tempted kids to zip down. The acceleration often led to wobbly front wheels and an unavoidable tumble at the bottom.
I thought of this hill when I was in my own yard working, once again, on the weeds. What was the motive behind all this clearing? I wanted to fill a page with words just as I wanted to free my yard of weeds. To write, to begin writing anew, always made sense to me in a way that I couldn’t put forth myself. Motive, as Nicole Brossard understands it, is something that “eternally returns in the work of an artist. The motive is roots, flesh and skin.” It made one question themselves endlessly, why? or how come? Any gardener would have echoed my husband and told me that weeding without tools was ineffective. I chose to use, at most, gloves. I needed to be close to the ground so I could grip, again and again, the taproot. To pull up, again and again, nothing but dirt clinging to new white rootlets.
What made me circle the park, round and round, learning over the years the bumps to avoid and the dangerous dips that could catch a wheel? What compelled me and the other children to return to the top of that dangerous hill and whiz down with our bare knees and soft palms? I still am not sure. This eternal return is of course both futile and risky, pleasurable and puzzling.
I started pulling weeds when I was six months large with my son. With each passing week, I could feel time begin to narrow. As I completed the final edits to a manuscript and wrote the last chapters of my dissertation in order to beat an increasingly real biological deadline, I weeded with ferocity. One evening, I returned from a walk and, once again, found myself sifting through the grass. A Sisyphean task. At one point, belly full of baby, I pulled and fell backwards to the ground.
The next morning, I woke to a sharp twinge that ruptured the early quiet. I went straight into labour. Our street was closed for a city-wide bicycle marathon and we had to call an ambulance to pull us from the stream of cyclists, who rode past the open doors of the ambulance shouting, Félicitations! I waved back at them from the gurney. A neighbour, looking down from her balcony, would tell my mother the following week: One day I saw her weeding, then the next day, the ambulance came!
After sleepless months of adjusting to a new person and the seemingly endless repetition of diapers and baths and nursing, the warmer season returned. I was delivered, once again, to the time of weeds. The squirmy newborn was now stumbling on two feet. My son would wobble between my legs as we moved forward together, his two hands in mine. The urgencies between us were different. Grassy afternoons, I would spread a blanket out for us and try to read, or jot notes. I tugged at words that were intractable. The next book felt like both a failure and a dream. My son became the most tangible thing in my world and I followed his patterns, lived by his schedule, slept – or didn’t – when permitted. Outside, the blanket could hardly keep him and I would wander off with him, barefoot and cautious.
I tried to weed. At the very least, I thought, I could snap off the yellow heads before they clouded over. I thought I could even include my son in this ritual. When able, I appreciated the grip of stalk and, however briefly, held tight to something that was my own. But a pen. A book. Those things became harder to reach in the early months when my son squirmed his way into the centre. I saw then, amidst the repetitions of his daily life, how our home emanated concentric cycles, each of varying needs, time, gravity, and possibility. I circled in all of the orbits – sometimes attentive, sometimes less so – always returning in the same way and starting over. More often, I was beckoned by a cry. A bedtime story. A demand for milk. Some things, I soon learned, could wait and, given enough time, could become something else. That spring I learned to plant something other than grass. Alongside my son, a toddling boy-god, I blew dandelions and watched as seeds flew off in a hush, as if they were carrying a secret.
Gillian Sze is the author of multiple poetry collections, including Peeling Rambutan, Redrafting Winter, and Panicle, which were finalists for the QWF A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She studied Creative Writing and English Literature and received a Ph.D. in Études anglaises from Université de Montréal. She resides in Montreal where she teaches creative writing and literature. www.gilliansze.com