Throughout my childhood, my mother always spent a lot of time and energy tending and shaping the land around the house, following her own instincts of landscaping and working almost entirely with hand tools.
She started just outside the sliding glass doors in the living room, where she planted a small lawn, beyond which was an expansive swamp dogwood thicket, laced with black raspberries and bordered by a young maple forest on one side, and a few barely visible pine trees on the other. Armed only with loppers, my mother began cutting down the thicket stalk by stalk, a project that took a couple of years of slow, patient labor.
Once the thicket was gone, and grass had been seeded in its place, my mom turned her attention to the huge limestone ledge that ran down alongside the house, part of it visible as mossy, grassy outcroppings, but most of it underground. She set to work with her shovel, hand rake and trowel, her intention to create a rock garden out of that long, sloping rock ledge. That project provided a focus for the long summers she spent with me and my brother in the country while my father went back to the city to work during the weeks.
I can see her standing, sweaty and red-faced at the end of a hot morning’s work, with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying the ledge with a squinted sculptor’s eye. She would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel gradually revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, a small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.
She also dug out a vegetable garden, in which she planted her morning coffee grounds and eggshells, which yielded crunchy sugar snap peas and big shiny zucchinis and a tangle of tomato plants loaded down with plum, cherry and huge oxheart tomatoes. In time, every contour of the ten acres or so around the houses on the property had felt the gentle touch of her hands, and yielded to the influence of her spades and trowels. Every young maple or oak grew there because she had judiciously allowed it to advance past sapling-hood.
What had once been a rocky, harum-scarum cow pasture became, over the course of many years, an orderly oasis of verdant green lawns, perennial flower beds and raised vegetable gardens, with the long ridge of the rock garden sloping down through the middle of it all to the elegantly landscaped pool. Now, more than forty years later, she’s still out there with her shovel, trowel and hand tools, tending and stroking her gardens into ever more radiant beauty.
This Mother’s Day, I salute my mother, whose outstanding gardening talents I have admired and learned from all my life. I can only hope that in some small way her greenest of thumbs has rubbed off on me.