A Mother’s Garden Tools: Patience and impatiens

“A Mother’s Garden Tools” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 10, 2006).

The Philadelphia Flower Show, which runs through Sunday at the Convention Center, is an inspiration to some gardeners, a glimpse of things to come for others, and to mothers of sons everywhere, a depressing preview of yet  another garden that will be trampled during the light of day.

It’s difficult to maintain a garden when you have seven children – seven boys, no less. Such was my mother’s fate during all the springs of my youth.

My brothers and I made certain that our yard never made the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. I tend to think my mother’s annual subscription to the magazine wasn’t so much about getting tips and inspiration for the home and garden, but rather, more about getting a monthly escape from her kids and our destructive habits.

Like the Flower Show, on those pages was a dreamy world that seemed almost not to exist. It did exist somewhere, though, and I suppose knowing that was comfort enough for my mother – until a scream, a bursting water balloon, or the crash of a broken window pulled her out of the glossy world of the magazine and into her backyard again. Reality looked a bit different.

A well-worn dirt runway spread diagonally across our lawn. With April’s showers came boyhood harrows, and we’d seize the rainy day to slip and slide across the lawn, squashing the approaching spring grass and its attempt to raise itself once again.

That muddy runway turned into a permanent path in our backyard as each season’s respective sports gave way to baseball catches, Wiffle Ball World Series, volleyball tournaments, football tosses, golf practice, and every lawn’s favorite: “Run the bases.”

My mother sprinkled, poured and dumped truckloads of grass seed on that enormous brown spot that constituted her backyard, but with no luck. She fruitlessly hollered at the birds pecking away at their gluttonous breakfast each morning. I tend to think that the birds had little to do with the lack of seedling success. Rather, more blame probably lay with the seven pairs of sneakers that ran afoot (not to mention the bike tires when we would attempt our own game of “bike-o-ball” – think motocross meets soccer).

Not satisfied with destroying only the grass, my brothers and I set about thwarting any chance of color surrounding our lawn.

In the football huddle, “seven to the woodpile” meant sprinting straight for seven yards, then running diagonally toward the hydrangea bushes in the corner of the yard, right before the woodpile. The quarterback would loft the football toward the hydrangea bushes (aiming to come just shy of them) and the inevitable result was two boys – receiver and defender – diving up and landing in, and on, the hydrangea bushes. Again and again those bushes were flattened to the ground.

In games of “war,” anything nature had to offer was considered fair ammunition. Pine cones were perfect for hurling sidearm at the enemy, and thus were a precious commodity. They littered the lawn all year round. Even more prized were rhododendron seed pods. Their smallish size made them difficult to see at high speeds and, combined with heir stickiness, made them the ultimate weapon of choice. As such, each pod was plucked off the bush as soon as it developed, thus preventing even a single blossom from forming.

Each spring, however, my mother would fight back. On Mother’s Day, she would claim her arsenal of red and white impatiens. Kneeling down in the bunker between a struggling garden and a struggling lawn, with spade in hand, she’d plant impatiens around the entire house.

The impatiens is a resilient and shady creature, though, and my brothers and I never managed to squash them into extinction. Come August, they’d claim victory with a bounty of red and white. Color did indeed exist!

Then my mother could sit and enjoy the beauty. Putting the Better Homes and Gardens down, she’d venture outside with an iced tea and doze in the sun, enjoying her own garden.

“Life is good,” she seemed to think.

Such a peaceful sight, a mother enjoying the fruits of her labor.

The armistice was short-lived, though. There was one remaining rhododendron pod to be plucked…

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