Between a Wreckage and an Eden

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

Everything I’ve ever learned about forgiveness was at the knee of my grandma and the sanctity of a garden. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t deserve it with either one. Mistakes, I had always believed, required absolution. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I can still see her–my tenacious grandma, working her weathered hands around the first bulbs of spring. Her nails were bitten to oblivion, a necessary evil to keep them clean of soil and her mind clear of the torment that only a grandmother can know. She had made mistakes, she told me, as she tugged and whipped weed after weed into a neat pile in the pathway. There had been the year that she had forgone the drudgery of separating the amaryllis, a mistake that had led them to crowd and forget their bloom. That was the same year that she didn’t stand against my mother, she noted, the year that I turned thirteen and a VW bug whisked me away to New Jersey. Life broke us both the year that the amaryllis were forgotten.

And all of these things were somehow the same.

Decades later, I found myself digging up those amaryllis—after all, her new place wouldn’t be conducive to little gardens and she was no longer steady enough for the work. I simply could not bear to leave them: Sporting coral, waxy flowers that bloomed every May, these bulbs had become a monument to my childhood. I drug them everywhere I moved.

There was the time I had to unearth them in July, only to forget them in a dingy garage for months. Then, there was the time I had to move them in late spring, knowing that they would not bloom after such a blatant disregard for their cycle. It was also the last year that my grandma would be alive. My own life was swept up with a wedding, raising kids, and scant time for phone calls. I was thoroughly oblivious that I was losing her. When I remember it now, that year of reckless and romantic abandon all tangled up in grief, it’s all somehow the same.

Then, there was the last time.

We moved onto our micro farm in late April of 2012. Grandma’s bulbs went right into the ground, even as the temperature skyrocketed and Alabama rain plummeted their new beds into mud. I knew, the way you know about cycles and loving and losing, that it was their last move during my own life. I knelt and wept in the rain that day, terrified for my grandma’s bulbs in alien soil. It was all such a wreck; I felt wholly lost without an anchor.

Sometimes, I get stuck in between the roughness of change and the unbearable beauty of it. Other times, I hear her voice again, telling me the truth: These things are all the same, honey. And then, I un-stick myself.

My mistakes as a farmer, momma, and a teacher all link together like a make-shift fence: Bamboo here, a pallet there, chain-link when and where I can afford it. They surround my life and my garden, both marking their occasion and warding off the wild things that go bump in the dark. Every year, I pull out my pen and paper to worry over my evolving garden–deciding what will not be grown again, what I want to try once more, what always works.

This year, we are not growing corn . . . an excruciating decision, yet based in reason and need. Tomatoes have been crossed off as well, as my neighbors grow fields of them and, to be honest, I have grown weary of fighting the viruses that have become accustomed to our beloved patch of earth. No matter, I’ve assured my family. We will double our green beans, our pumpkins, and our peppers and forge forward to a harvest that has learned from its own mistakes.

It is smart, my grandma once told me, to let go of what doesn’t work. It is brave, she also taught me, to try again. My stumbles, my blunders, have always led to something deeper as a gardener. There was the time that an entire packet of basil slipped from my hand and covered the ground. It was my first lesson in bio-intensive gardening: I had haphazardly created a micro-climate, a lush field of basil that withstood wind and rain.

There have also been the harder mistakes. In 2014, we brought in soil from a local company that swore it was wonderful for gardens—only to watch our garden poisoned for three seasons. For years after, we repurposed that field as an in-ground compost plot that now grows lush, semi-tropical turmeric from South Vietnam. It is a space in a constant state of flux—growing somewhere in that struggle between what I had intended and what it will become.

Ah, but the ride of it all can be harrowing. It certainly has been for our new farmhand. In the spring of 2020, my son, Zach, left his high-risk restaurant job. His conundrum was rough: Jump into our pod or be left outside of it with no hugs, no family dinners, no Christmas fires. I remember feeling deep, dewy guilt over his decision. After all, it was me whom he was protecting—I was, in fact, the weakest link. My middle child had always been the most philosophical, and it was his contention that he would learn farming, paychecks be damned. And so, it began.

Some days have been jagged and hard. He has missed his friends, longed for the past, and struggled between the drive to be young and wild against his commitment to be part of our familial pod. He has also plunged his hands deep into the ground, guided fragile seedlings and plucked tomatoes for dinner salads. My son has worried over torrential rain, gloried in the final count of pickled cucumbers, and stood in the late hours of the day surveying his semi-feral garden. I have witnessed him nearly break, steady himself, and plan for the next sowing. Only time will tell if it was all a colossal mistake. Even then, I tell him, there’s simply nothing quite like a beautiful mess.

Because these things, I remember now, are often the same.

It doesn’t escape me that Zach’s birthday is in May, the month that my amaryllis will erupt in dogged indifference to the mistakes of a gardener. These will always be my vagabond bloomers—just like my son—harboring within them the energy to grow again. And when I lose the fire in my belly, when starting over on fallow land weighs heavy, I think of the lesson an old woman once handed me while on her knees in a garden.

It shimmers in my son’s eyes now like a bulb holding on for late spring.  He counts his gardening mistakes as if counting the heads of sheep, assuring that each one is still within eyesight. They have become wards before planting and markers of a decent day’s work. They never require absolution, for in each one is the seed of another cycle. Farmers are often the most philosophical lot. 

Today, I stood in my high tunnel, toes dug deep into the compost layer that promises spring in spite of a pandemic, and just grounded there. It could be, this garden. I could make a mistake, I whisper in prayer to the past. It’s all on the precipice, the muddy edge, between a wreckage and an Eden. 

And that’s when I hear her, my grandma with the ragged fingers that fought their way through those amaryllis beds every year. I hear her voice as my son picks up a spade, when my mistakes become a field, when my barn cat closes his eyes and stands in the sun as if in worship. She is with me as I lift my first grandchild and whisper promises of strawberries in her ear. My grandma has become the wind that brings spring back around, winding through the pines that guarded our home through the winter nights. She is everywhere now.

I’m still making beautiful mistakes, down here on here on the ground. And these things are all the same.

photo credit: Ross Domke, Unsplash