Espaliered tree

Attention

            Jonathan had always gardened, but after his wife’s death he became what his children called, “obsessed.”
            “Passion,” he insisted.  “Activity.  How can that be a bad thing?”
            They took his point, though grudgingly.  In the winter, they could command some of his time.  Even then he was planning his next garden, seed catalogues arriving in the mail, nurseries sending him brochures, botanical gardens highlighting their own ambitious plans and asking for donations.  The local greenhouse sent e-mails to let him know when they’d planted what—each flower, herb, vegetable—in cold frames.
            By the time his garden was fully planned, and St. Patrick’s Day arrived with his ritual planting of potatoes, the children knew they might not expect a visit until first frost.  “I hope it freezes before Thanksgiving this year,” said his daughter Katherine during her weekly telephone call.
            “Should I hope for another flood?” asked his son Robert when Jonathan refused to meet him and his family at Disneyland one spring.
            Jonathan smiled through such imploring.  After all, the children were grown and gone.  At home, he could pay attention to what was growing.  He was well occupied by his search for the perfect garden. 
Besides, every year he spent two weeks in late November and early December with Katherine and her family in Boston.  “When it’s too cold to do much,” she complained.  Christmas and the New Year he spent with Robert and his family in Minneapolis.  “You only see Minnesota when there’s snow on the ground,” Robert reminded him.
            Jonathan’s children would be fine.  His plants would not.  What of crab grass, bindweed, dandelion, purslane, and knotweed?  What of aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths?  What of leaf molds and root rots and tomato wilt and all the other microscopic diseases and conditions that, even once he detected them, might well win their fight against him?  Each year he carried out his winter plan until he had the perfect potato dug, the perfect tomato picked, the perfect zucchini snapped at the stem, the perfect basil leaf snipped—each one a victory against the odds of weed, insect and disease.
            He bought resistant plants, exchanged hearty seeds with his Seed Saver friends, sharpened his hoe, lightly dusted the leaves of insect-attracting plants, checked the soil for balance and did not over or under water his garden.  He was vigilant, and present.  He could sense what lurked to work against him—the black spot on a squash, the slight curl of dehydration, the leaf wilting as fungus threatened.  He dreamed about his garden, solved problems in his sleep, knew upon waking exactly where distress might show.  And he went go to the garden to fix it.
            Still, his children questioned his gardening, asked him to visit in the summer when the children were home from school, when they themselves could take vacation time.  “In a garden, you have no vacations,” he told them.  The enemies of his plants never rested, nor could he.
            One Christmas, Robert pressed him.  I’m taking Claire to Italy for two weeks this summer.  We want you to join us there for a week.”
            “Need help with Lizzers and Jimmy?” he asked.
            “The kids’ll be fine with us,” Robert sighed.  “I read that the first botanical garden in the world is in Padua.  We could go there.”
            “What about my garden?” Jonathan asked.
            “Take a year off.  Subscribe to the community garden, the one you said will bring a bag of vegetables to your natural food store each week.”
            Jonathan sighed.
            “Let the professional gardeners sweat it out next summer.”
            “The sweat keeps me alive.”
            “The trip to Italy is on me,” said Robert.
            “I hope you have a wonderful time.  I’ll go some winter.”
            “Dad?” Robert whispered.  “I really want you to be in Italy.” 
            The wilt in Robert’s voice might have sent Jonathan to the garden had his son been a plant.  But his son was grown—he’d nurtured the boy all he could.  Robert did not mention the trip through the rest of Jonathan’s time in Minneapolis.
            Before summer, his son called about Italy once again.  “I don’t think Claire will go unless you agree to it, don’t ask me why,” Robert said.
            Jonathan was already in the thick of his garden.  “Another year, maybe,” he said.
            Then, in mid-summer, Robert was on his father’s doorstep.  Claire had left him.  Taken the kids to Chicago, rented an apartment, and begun a job she’d lined up during a spring business meeting there.  The man who hired her, Robert thought, was probably her lover.  “And I didn’t even see it coming.”
            “Yes, you did,” said Jonathan.  “That’s why you wanted to go to Italy.  And why you both wanted me with you.”
            “Can I stay here for a while?” asked Robert.
            “I could use some help in the garden,” said Jonathan.
            For two weeks, they worked together.  Jonathan showed his son how to pay attention to weed, pest, disease, condition.  Together they pruned, snipped, harvested, and deadheaded.  They redirected the vines of beans, tomatoes and melons.  After their time together, Robert complimented his father.  Jonathan complimented his son.  “You understand now why I do this?” he asked.
            “For me,” said Robert, “gardening just wouldn’t be worth the trouble.”
            “Why did Claire leave you?” asked Jonathan.
            “She fell in love with someone else,” said Robert.
            “She found someone who paid attention to her.  Like I pay attention to the garden.  Like I paid attention to your mother.  Love is nothing but a kind of knowledge and sensitivity.  A kind of attention.  Since your mother died, I have the garden to love.”
            “And your family?” asked Robert.
            “You’re supposed to leave me,” said Jonathan.  “It’s not too late for you.” He cupped his hand and caught a moth just before it landed on a broad red cabbage leaf.  “You have knowledge of Claire that no one else can have.  And of Lizzers and Jimmy.  Go,” he waved his son toward the house, “pay attention.”
            The next day, Robert was on a plane to Chicago.  Jonathan went to his garden.  He’d noticed a chocolate bell pepper plant that would topple in the next rain.  He staked the plant, built up the earth around the base of the thick stem with rich compost, pressed the soil down, picked off a small white blossom growing too close to another, so that the peppers formed from the buds would have to compete for the size he wanted them to become.  He looked forward to eating the pepper he’d nurtured, so rich at his table, such a reward for care.
At summer’s end, he surprised his son with a Labor Day visit of five days.  Robert and Claire, even Lizzers and Jimmy, were shocked and delighted to see him.  The lake by their house was surrounded by green, and reflected a perfect blue of sky.  “Who would believe that Minnesota has such color?” Jonathan teased his son.
            “Who would believe you’d be here?” asked Robert.
            “My garden is well planted.  Strong.  It’ll survive a little neglect,” said Jonathan.
            They walked the path toward home and dinner.  Jonathan admired his son’s new plantings of bluestem and wheatgrass. 
            “I put them there to remind me of home,” Robert said.
            “Yes,” Jonathan said, “I am reminded of home.  And now of the home you’ve made for yourself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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