Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Secret Garden in a Box

November 29, 2011

For some unknown reason, while lying in shavasana (rest pose) in yoga class this morning, with the rain drumming on the street outside and washing down the enormous arched windows, a memory from childhood surfaced.  My mother was (and still is) an avid gardener.  When we lived in our attached Tudor rowhouse in Queens, she’d diligently plant dozens of flats of sunny marigolds, red impatiens, and white begonias along the borders of clipped decorative bushes that rimmed the front of the house and lined the beds of pachysandra that scalloped the side of the house with flaming celosia.  She filled planters with purple petunias and happy-faced pansies and created her own hanging baskets with geraniums that seemed to explode like fireworks.  In the alleyway out back, there was a narrow strip of soil along the fence line where she planted tomatoes and cucumbers which were staked and labeled or grew in tangled vines along the ground.

Let me make one thing clear.  My mother is not the back-to-the-earth sort.  She is a PhD’ed professor of nursing who enjoys her bi-weekly manicure, her Starbucks, and now, in her suburban Colonial on a cul-de-sac, the landscapers who come each week to maintain the yard.  But she still adamantly is the flower gardener.  It is her escape, her retreat, bringing her, I believe, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment: she can sit on her patio and look out over her garden with a cup of coffee in the mornings or the afternoon with the latest issue of Oprah and admire both the order of color and the variety of flowerings and know that it was by her hand alone that it looks so beautiful, like something out of Home and Garden.  This is in contrast to so many of the flowering tableaus at the homes surrounding hers, planted and maintained by hired landscapers, contract workers, who are told what to plant and where to plant it, or who are shown a page from a magazine and told merely “to make it look like this.”

But I truly digress because this is not what I was thinking about while lying on my back, eyes closed, listening to the rain.  What I was remembering were the many trips my mother and I made to Garden World, a vast gardening pantheon, a precursor to Home Depot that stocked all possible necessities for the home gardener: seeds, flowers, mulch, tools.  But more importantly, and this was why I never protested going on the hours long excursions as a kid (because I am not, let me reiterate, am not a gardener in any way, shape or form), a greenhouse of exotic flowers--orchids, Venus flytraps, Birds of Paradise, cacti—and an entire room of fake flowers.  (Of course, once I hit the cranky, hormonal, I-have-better-things-to-do-with-my-time years of adolescence, I refused to go with her to spend hours debating this flat of pink petunias over that flat of more pink petunias; but in the age range of seven to eleven, I eagerly hopped into the station wagon.) 

This was in the late seventies and early eighties, a time when my mom didn’t worry about letting me wander the vast aisles of Garden World on my own.  So she’d go off with her red wagon and I’d dilly dally first into the greenhouse to marvel at the exotic plants, run my fingertips over the cacti spines, draw a prick of blood; tease a Venus flytrap with my forefinger; imagine the Bird of Paradise in my bedroom, beside my bed, its strange, magical orange flower taking flight over me in my sleep; hover over the frangipani tree, breathing in its sweetness, realizing all those yard flowers—the impatiens, the petunias, the begonias smelled really, like nothing in comparison.  The frangipani flower smelled like the other side of the world, like adventure, like some secret, sweet spot deep inside of me that I had yet to discover.

And then I skulked off to the fake flowers.  Racks and racks of expensive silk blooms.  Cheaper, rigid plastic sprays.  Ropes of ivy and weird feathery boas.  But I wasn’t there merely to admire the tempting ersatz flora; I was on a predetermined mission: to steal the fake blossoms.  New ones, if possible, each time.  I drifted up and down the aisles, past clusters of velvet roses, frosted grape garlands, silky turquoise tulips and clutches of purple calla lilies, until I spied what I did not yet have: a poinsettia bloom misted in glittery silver and metallic blue; a spray of Chinese lantern in dazzling orange; a stargazer lily with its six tongues of pink.  Quickly, I snapped the chosen bloom from the stem and tucked it into my coat pocket, then jotted down its name in a small memo pad I kept in the same pocket for that exact purpose.  The list was suspiciously, gloriously, thrillingly long.  Who would ever suspect me of shoplifting a simple flower?  And if caught, couldn’t I claim I was just helping out, doing what I’d seen my mother doing every afternoon in her own garden, deadheading the wilted, the dying, thinning the herd, so to speak?

Eventually, I met up with my mom and her overloaded red wagon at the cash register and we drove home.  I immediately raced upstairs to my bedroom, pulled my wooden box from under my bed (a horse engraved on the top), and opened it.  Inside, twenty, maybe thirty silk flowers, heads only, an explosion of colors and shapes and textures.  A world’s offering of floral possibilities crammed into a teeny tiny box under my bed.  My secret, sweet spot.  Impossible bedfellows: African violet with Bird of Paradise with cosmos with iris with hibiscus with lunaria with dahlia with peony with larkspur with pussy willow with anemones with ranunculus with lilac with stargazer.  I sat cross-legged, counting them out one by one (of course, there were some repeats, but who cared? ), trying to match them up with the scrawled names in the memo book, and then dropped them in the empty bowl of my lap, filling that space between my crossed legs—a fantastical garden of my own making.  Maybe I’d momentarily dream of being Mary in the real Secret Garden unveiling, with the rehabilitated Colin Craven, all that resurrected rose-arbored loveliness to Archibald Craven.  Or dream of my wedding bouquet, a cascade of roses—though at the time, I couldn’t dream of any accompanying boy loving me enough to marry me.      

Mine, I’d whisper.  All mine.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I meant by that, if I meant anything more than mine by the sheer fact of my taking, my stealing.  But I felt a strange embarrassment, a shameful self-consciousness in trying to imagine something MORE, something beautiful, something secretly, meaningfully mine in the making--as if IT was already staking a claim: Silly, stupid girl.  Just a bunch of fake flowers.  Plundered heads.  But there they were, all those beautiful, impossible bedfellows gathered together in my lap, in my very own dream garden.  Star of Bethlehem. Bird of Paradise.  Stargazer.

And then I’d hear voices downstairs, footsteps coming upstairs, so I’d cram the flowers back in the box, and shove the box back under the bed.  And shove IT away, too, for a few more years, a few, very few more years.  That secret garden in a box was mine, all mine. 

And then shavasana was over, and the memory drifted away, and I opened my eyes and sat up in sukhasana.  Cross-legged, once again my lap an empty bowl.  But not empty.  My impossible garden is full of wild, extraordinary blooms: my life rehabilitated; my recovery resurrected; a boy who loves me enough not only to marry me, but to love me through all of IT and beyond; my daughter with her own secret box filled with secret dreams under her bed; and my son who has staked his claim in my heart, whispering his “I love you’s” to me day and night.