I Am Not a Gardener

Photos courtesy of Nancy Elizabeth Wentzel

“I am not a gardener,”
I remind my husband
As we scroll through endless photos
In search of our first house;
After eleven years of wandering the country
like vagabonds, pursuing useless degrees in
Math and science
We’re weary of apartment confines,
Heavy with another baby on the way.

Every house I view seems palatial;
The extravagance of our own home, our own yard
Leaves me not very picky about the options in our price range.
We should be close to the college
And Nate wants a yard- a big yard, fenced and level,
For the children to play.
“We should have goats, and bees,” he says
As we drive around rural Unicoi County.
“I am not a gardener,” I remind him.
“You’ll have to do all the yard work.”

Eventually we spot the perfect listing:
a brick 1965 ranch, 3 beds and 2 baths.
“They don’t build them like they used to,” we say.
No vinyl-sided McMansion for us.
The owner, Norm, in his ninth decade of life,
Has just lost his beloved wife
To a 12 year battle with Alzheimer’s.
Her portrait occupies the fireplace hearth,
A makeshift shrine to devotion beyond words.
What does it mean to love a woman for 60 years,
to care for her over a decade
As her personhood fades away?
The yard is immense, fenced, level
Adorned with beds of bright annuals
That Norm has planted- some even after we had closed the deal
A gratuitous gift to strangers who will inherit his kingdom.
He watches our little girls play,
Tears up at the memory of his life gone past.
“I hope they’ll enjoy it” he says wistfully.

The paperwork lists two-thirds of an acre,
1500 square feet.
A little cottage in the backyard,
That Norm has used as a woodshop.
Sure, the kitchen is in bad shape
But maybe a fresh coat of white paint for cabinets
Will do for now.
I look at the meticulously trimmed grass,
The neatly landscaped borders, and think
“This place will never be this tidy again.”

Sure enough,
Soon plastic toys litter the yard, the driveway
Nate jumps into gardening, building the raised bed by the house,
The patch for vegetables in the back.
We realize the pear tree in front still bears good fruit;
The little girls harvest them in a box and we
Make pear sauce for days.
The new baby is born,
The goats and bees never materialize,
As we are swept along in an ever-faster current of life.
There’s homeschool co-op, dance class,
And a chance to teach math part-time again.
As time goes on, I start to grow restless, less satisfied
With our choice.
Why isn’t the floorplan more open?
Why are these kitchen countertops so shabby and old?
All these hardwood floors are worn and scuffed,
Need to be refinished and resealed.
We accumulate: more books, more toys, more clothes
And I start to think, “we should have bought a bigger house,
With a smaller yard.”

Nate gets a used John Deere off Craigslist
At first it “runs good,”
But over the course of a few summers proves
That small engine maintenance is the curse of mankind.
He struggles and sweats and wants to swear.
Finally I can take it no longer,
We spend crazy money on a brand new Craftsman from Sears.
My husband seems happy.
I remind him, gently,
(passively, aggressively),
“We” need to do more than just mow–
There’s the edging, the mulching,
“I am not a gardener” I remind him;
I’ve got the dishes, the cooking to attend to.
He grows zinnias and dahlias in the front,
Plants lavender and lilac.
I string trim, quietly seething-
He doesn’t like that the battery won’t last to do
The whole yard at one time.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a yard,”
Wrote Robert Frost,
Wondering aloud at the downward pull
Of entropy, chaos, disorder
The plastic toys, cracked and bleached by the sun,
Fall prey to the mower, and scatter.
The pear tree develops blight;
We give up on harvesting fruit
It lies rotting on the ground,
Until the elderly man who walks with his wife
Comes and collects it in a box.
Perhaps he can’t taste the odd flavor of the tainted fruit
Perhaps the wisdom of his years allows him to overlook it
To embrace what is, in its imperfection,
To not let life go to waste.

Another baby comes, more activities, more work
The house grows smaller.
I search the internet:
We could really use a fourth bedroom, a better floorplan
I covet modern kitchens, recessed lights.
Nate doesn’t want to move, because
We’ll never find a yard like this again.
The children seem to prefer Netflix and Minecraft, to roaming.
“It’s boring, it’s hot,” they say.
Outside, the counterpoint of Frost’s gravitational descent to chaos
Is the unstoppable force of growing Life:
Weeds grow up through cracks in the sidewalk, the patio,
The rose bushes grow to preposterous size.
The fence breaks under force of honeysuckle.
Nate keeps mowing, faithfully, weekly
I keep string-trimming, resentfully,
Unwilling for the neighbors to look at our lawn-mullet
Clucking their tongues, saying “the neighborhood has gone down.”

We lie beside each other, wordless with the
Intimacy of many years;
Frustration, anger, tears boil over;
He doesn’t understand why I can’t keep the kitchen clean
I don’t understand why he can’t see the things that I see
That need attention.
“I’m NOT a gardener!” I tell him,
“If it had been up to me, I would have bought
A condo, no yard work, with a playground down the street.”
I read an ultraconservative commentary on gender roles:
The domain of Eve is in the home; the domain of Man is in the world.
When women shop for cars, they look at the interior: the upholstery, the cupholders.
When men shop for a car, they look at the engine, kick the tires.
Keeping my nest, my womb orderly is exhausting, the job that is never done;
And surely I don’t want to add to it
Our enormous back yard.

We are just like our parents of old;
I can see Eve now- Adam blaming, the sting-
“The woman made me do it!”
I can imagine her, hurling an apple at his head-
“I AM NOT A GARDENER” she screams,
Why are we here? This place is not good,
Its demands and constraints will surely kill me.
Little does she imagine the
Thorns, and wasps, and scorpions that will soon
Infest paradise.
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
We don’t know what it means: desire for love, or desire to kill?
Surely it must mean both,
In this dance we do, this waltz,
This life-dance of joy, of resentment. Of mercy and forgiveness.

And then the year comes
When my depression has lifted;
My youngest baby is a baby no more.
And in my yard, I discover, that
With leather gloves and a lopper,
I can prune the rose bushes, to tame them into
Domesticated form.
I can plant marigolds and petunias in pots of dirt,
And a few of them will actually germinate, and bloom.
I still don’t like to get my hands dirty-
After all- I am not a gardener-
But now, I am forty, and something inside me has changed.
I begin to take interest in the names of zone 7 plants:
I learn rhododendron and azalea,
The showy lusciousness of hibiscus,
The glossy shine of gardenia.
I spend hours clearing brush and weeds,
Bring home shrubs in plastic pots, gingerly coaxing Nate
Into planting them.
When I was young, and I saw women of a certain age
List “gardening,” as an interest, I thought
“How incredibly dull, how commonplace and trite.”
Now my eyes have finally awakened to the possibility
That this garden He has placed us in is Good.

One day when trimming the long-abandoned vegetable plot,
I disturb a nest of angry wasps;
They could be hornets or yellow jackets, for all I know-
I just know that their stings are terrible.
I race inside, stripping off my clothes in a frenzy,
Praying to be saved from the nightmare of a child.
The cottage has a nest of black widow spiders;
We see snakes, black bears, and (as I put it to a friend),
“Every stinging insect known to mankind.”
There is danger in the world, and evil.
The thorns of roses and wild blackberry cut my skin,
But with time I come to understand:
How could we know what it means- truly know-
To live in exile from paradise?
If it were not for this messy, broken, beautiful place
This land of wild roses, and thorns
And this man that I love-
I see him here in flesh and bone beside me,
His rib made my own
I shelter in his embrace
The rain falls gently through the window, outside.

No, I am not a gardener; but in this, the eighth year,
Something wild-sown has blossomed inside me.
My body is getting older; it needs movement, work,
And time outside. Genevieve, the youngest, joins me,
Not to work, but just to Be. Nate remembers his childhood in
The city; “all I ever wanted as a child was a big yard,” he says.
We build a bonfire; and I am so very glad, this man of mine
Can light a pile of sticks ablaze. Try as I might,
If fire depended on me for its inception,
We would all freeze. I sit outside and watch the stars,
Constellations whose names I have ungraciously forgotten,
My husband’s patient teaching long discarded.
When a warm, gentle breeze blows through our yard,
I remember being a little girl in Houston-
The Gulf of Mexico always gave us such a breeze,
And I never loved its presence until I discovered its absence other places.
I did not know that peace and healing could come to my heart
Through this yard;
That the day would come when the profligate, absurd expanse
of baby-pink roses on thorn-sharp boughs
Would open my eyes to the lavish, absurd outpouring of my Savior.
That perfume, squandered all over His feet;
surely it could have fed the poor.
These roses should really be in a wedding, or comforting the bereaved,
Or cheering the sick,
Not wasted here for my eyes alone to behold.
It is the mystery of grace: that in this chaos and rubble, sweat and tears,
Glimpses of paradise still seep through,
Preposterous streaks of the glory yet to come.

I am not a gardener; but I have laid my own heart open, bare,
Willing to see now what will grow.

Editors Note: Nancy Elizabeth Wentzel wrote this while covered from head to foot in poison ivy.

1 Comment

  1. Somalia
    Jun 18, 2020

    Wowwwww I love this intricate story of evolution woven through…poetry of all things! I thought I’d stop reading once I saw the length…but it was so captivating that I had to finish. Absolutely loooved this

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