Puberty, the Apocalypse, and a Garden

by Sofia Ali-Khan

I would deny it if you asked me in their earshot, but I’ll tell you here that my favorite thing about the community garden is that my children are not in it. I make a show of inviting them, like a good, engaged mother ought to: “I’m going to water the garden, do you want to come?” I time my request to when my son has just started his one-hour allotment of screen time, or my daughter is reading from the piles of books that follow her around, like pets, from room to room.

It was different when they were little. They were small terrors, tromping over just-planted seeds to get to the raspberries, sucking dirty fingers when told they had to be more careful.  Now they have such hard, heavy things happening and they want to deposit them in my mother body so that they can move on, freely, into the world.  They’re soggy with puberty and prepuberty, so that one minute my son is telling me about the camera he’s saving for, and the next he’s sullen, angry, inconsolable even. My daughter talks about the kitten she’s sure we’re getting this fall, and I bite my tongue instead of suggesting that she get a handle on her own hygiene before taking on someone else’s.  I know that if I pull her out of her endless fantasy life, I will lose another moment of her fleeting childhood.

I love these children beyond any reason, but I am desperate to escape them. I want to save every second of their waning desire to tuck themselves between my body and the back of the couch anytime they see me in a moment of rest. But I also want them to grow up, speak in full sentences or even coherent words when they are upset, stop needing to hand me every emotional excess of their modest, but rapidly expanding lives. It is a lot to carry, especially in this moment when I cannot promise them a lifetime of seasons, oceans, an atmosphere that will keep them alive. I am crushed by motherhood in this new world.  

I act disappointed when they say absently they’ll come to the garden next time, a small offering of consolation. I pack a basket for things I might harvest. Make promises to my husband, that I’ll return quickly and help with bedtime.  He’s tired from work, recovering from Covid. I need to recover from the scent of my child’s armpits only one hour after deodorant has been applied, the latest mood swing, the endless requests to be allowed to hide from the anxious world in one more hour of Minecraft.

In the garden, there are weeds everywhere, at the edges of all eight separate beds in my 20×20 plot with a ramshackle, mix-and-match fence all around it. I like the weeds, if I’m honest. They remind me that living things like to grow. Will grow even if conditions are far from ideal, even if someone is actually trying to kill them. I no longer squat, fastidiously going after their roots in the soil. I pick up the hoe and carve away only the tallest of them, grasses with seed heads about to burst open. I’m taking the position that the vegetables might need some motivation to be strong, might need to learn to fight a little.

This year I’m growing romaine, cucumbers, kale, garlic. Onions, eggplant, dill, butternut squash. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and cilantro, if the precious things will ever come up. Many of these I hide in our meals: butternut squash and zucchini are baked in, or fried in chickpea flour, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic go into sauce. Kale is frozen and crumbled into everything, all year long. It’s the love I return to the children, hidden, subtle, when there is nothing comforting left to speak. Or when I am afraid to say: This world is beyond me, too. I tell them we will all return to the arms of the Beloved. That whatever pain and confusion there is in this life will be straightened, reckoned, justified until we are transcendent, celestial. What I don’t say is that I don’t know what happens in between. And they will not know, and together we will always be out of control, ricocheting through this world.  That all we can hope to do is nourish one another, make some good things happen, stop some bad things from happening.  

The next time I go to the garden, I will commit myself to bringing the children anyway. I will overcome their resistance to even the most minor external transition, immersed as they are in such a massive internal transformation into adulthood. When we arrive, my son will stay close, harvesting alongside me, complaining copiously. I will not be surprised when my daughter wanders off to strip oregano from the stem and eats as much of it as she can hold. I will be surprised when I mention casually that our most prolific weed, purslane, is edible, and she gets to work. She will gather it carefully, muddy stem removed, in a pouch made from the front of her shirt. At home, she will wash it, mix it with young romaine and cherry tomatoes from the garden, and with olive oil and lemons imported yet from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. 

photo credit: Jonathan Kemper, Unsplash