Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tending the Garden

Last summer, Meg brought me two baby tomato plants. I planted them in the back yard. That’s the whole story. Nothing else relevant to picking and eating tomatoes, or even seeing actual tomatoes, occurred.

Not that I didn’t try. I prepared the soil, I amended it (which always makes me think of the Constitution), I lovingly fertilized and watered the plants. I did everything but sing to them (which might have been the best thing, as it turned out, a sort of mercy killing). The plants grew huge, caressing a nearby rose bush, creating a bouquet of roses and tomato flowers, but no tomatoes.

It’s a metaphor, right?

Chris in Meg's garden
Meg on the other hand is a world-class gardener. When we lived in Baltimore, she tilled and tended a large vegetable garden on a gentle hillside behind our home. We lived on a farm, so there were fields and streams and woods all around us, even cows, but it was this plot that Meg tamed and made fertile. She grew chilies (for chilie rellenos), corn, asparagus, raspberries, melons, squash…and tomatoes. Chris and Nick loved digging in the dirt and filling their baskets with whatever was ripe, although when they picked raspberries, we saw a lot of red mouths and cheeks and not that many berries.

That was in the early nineties. Meg and I had been married for five or six years. My three older children lived in other states. I didn’t get to see them much. To be honest, I think they were still upset with me for divorcing their mother (may be yet). A divorce is awkward, I don’t have to tell anyone that. It’s tough on everyone, especially kids. Little kids, certainly, but even pretty big kids.

My daughter, Ashley, was fifteen when her mother and I split up. She had gone to ballet camp in Boston that summer and she came home with a t-shirt for me that said “World’s Greatest Dad.” I remember her holding it tightly as I told her what was happening. I never got the t-shirt.

What did I tell her and her older brothers? That their mother and I had grown apart. It sounds so vapid, so insubstantial, so not a good reason to break a child’s heart. How can you explain your heart to a child? How can you even understand it yourself?

In the years before my divorce, I worked all the time. I rarely got home for dinner. I loved my children intensely, but saw them little. I remember being on airplanes and thinking about them. That was the worst time, isolated, alone with nothing but my thoughts.

I was running and gunning at work. That’s what men do, right? But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe I just didn’t want to be at home.

Paul Simon has a great song called “Slip Sliding Away.” A man came a long way to tell his son “the reasons for the things he’d done,” but instead “kissed his boy as he lay sleeping then turned around and headed home again.”

Why is that? Why do we have such a hard time talking to our children about our deepest feelings? Are we playing a role we can’t step out of? Is it pride? Or shame? Is it fear they will never see us the same way again?

Perhaps we simply lack the courage to admit our human failings, our weaknesses, to those who love and trust us so completely. To ask for their forgiveness and understanding, and to try, in asking, to understand ourselves. If we shed the hard shell of father protector, might we not disappear entirely, like some hologram for which the generating force, a child’s adoration, is suddenly switched off?

Maybe it’s harder for men than for women. I don’t know.

It’s easy to kid yourself about the consequences of your choices. Children are resilient, you tell yourself. They’ll be okay. They certainly give that impression as they grow up, moving in a blur from one stage to another, seemingly indefatigable.

But what do they think when something goes wrong in the family? When dad never comes home from work. When mom and dad split up. They think it’s their fault. In your life, as an adult, it’s a bump in the road; in theirs it’s transformative.

Why do you suppose the things that happen to us as children carry such life-long emotional consequences, whereas life’s later ups and downs are just part of it all? We bounce from job to job, years go by, all pretty much the same, but during those same years our children are being molded from soft clay and hard-fired in the kiln of their homelife.

When our children are young, we think it is our job to teach them. That’s certainly true, to a point, but lately I have come to think that, whatever we might wish, mostly what we are really doing is providing the environment in which they will teach themselves. We are their gardeners, responsible for giving them rich soil and water and nourishment. They do the rest.

We can’t change who we are. We can’t always moderate the passions that drive us. Nor can we live lives entirely sublimated to those of our children. But we can think like good gardeners. Are we transplanting them too often, leading to a kind of dull and sustained shock? Are we, in the emotionally arid states that afflict each of us now and then, withholding the water of attention, the nourishment of love?

These are not easy questions, even in the abstract, much less under battlefield conditions. But they are questions any good gardener would ask. I have no ready answers, only things to consider as we wander up and down the rows of our family lives. I still don't know what happened to those tomatoes.


  1. I'm a terrible gardener, literally and figuratively. But how I love that Paul Simon Song, "Slip Sliding Away."

    Another thought provoking piece!


  2. Wow, Mac, I so love how those tomatoes, and those gardens, come back in at the end of this piece -- the last line brought tears to my eyes, AND a laugh of recognition. I wish I'd had your essays to read as my own children were little, because I find your voice so thoughtful, so curious, and ultimately so very generous toward our effort-ful human selves.

  3. What Harriet said. I so agree. This is so thoughtful, and the writing rich. I laughed out loud at the opening paragraph. :-)

  4. Sounds like your tomato flowers just never got fertilized ... most are self-pollinating; maybe you got a variety that wasn't?

  5. I don't have children, and yet I know as I watch my friends babies grow from toddlers to teens to young adults, that parenting is life's biggest blessing. It tortures and fulfills and breaks hearts in a single moment. In our household, as a child, I was the "good girl" while my sister raised hell. When I reunited with my mother this September for the first time in twenty-eight years, maybe it was unfair, but I asked her about the choices she made four decades earlier. She said, "I thought you were all right. I had my hands so full with your sister. I thought you were all right." I wasn't. I am now, thank goodness. My point is, children are resilient when they live in a home where truth telling takes precedence over the veneer of playing "happy families". As for your tomatoes - did they have enough sun?