When my mother goes abroad, which is often, her greatest fear is that we will let her garden die. And by “we,” I mean “I.” My track record for watering mom’s plants lags far behind even my brother’s, whose record would be deemed abysmal by any green thumb’s standards. If asked, he will water every other day for about a fraction of the required time, standing in one place like a statue in a fountain so that a very lucky spot in my mother’s garden will continue to flourish while all the plants around it wilt and wither to the ground like an empire fallen around a tyrant king. Occasionally, if he feels generous, my brother will flick his wrist to and fro, like tossing crumbs to serfs and peasants so that by the time my mother comes home those plants are clinging on for dear life, their stomata (a dusty word, pulled out of 9th grade biology fog) puckered beyond recognition.
But being male and being her son, my brother would only be mildly chastised by my mother’s furrowed brow. She would say, sadly, “Thank you for watering my plants,” before inevitably turn on me because really, watering the garden is a woman’s job, “Why didn’t you water the plants?” she’d say, implying, “Where were you when this massacre happened? Why did you not stop it?”
And really, if my only shortcoming as a daughter was a reluctance to water my mother’s plants, then I’d say, “Oh boo hoo, deal with it,” but this is far from my only shortcoming. For one, I love my mother’s garden in the same way I love Target. I love shopping there and would be terribly, terribly distressed if one day it were to implode and Wal-Mart became my only option for “cheap mega-stores in which to spend too much time and money,” but I would never in a million years enjoy working there. I will take from it (hell, if Target had a “blind employees only day”, I would don soft slippers and leave with an ungodly amount of stolen Hawaiian Tropic Sunscreen, cheap t-shirts, and NYTimes Bestsellers), get what I need to live my good life. But give back? Never!
And so too with my mother’s garden. She plants and tends to a variety of my favorite fruits, vegetables, and herbs: tomatoes, yam leaves, leeks, green onion, mint, basil, cilantro, doughnut peaches, apricots, and those are just what I can name off the top of my head. She does the harvesting as well as most of the cooking (though my father will beg to differ); I merely nod gleefully when she brings in basket after basket of my favorite produce.
With such a plentiful garden that makes so many people so happy (we often swap with my other green-thumbed aunts and grandma), it is only natural for my mother to worry about it in her absence. I worried too, briefly, wondering how many minutes of my day I’d have to devote to watering plants during her recent trip, as my brother would not be here to split the responsibility with me. Watering always turned out to be a rather enjoyable experience – I found I enjoyed the cool breeze at dusk and the grass between my toes, the soothing white noise of the water, but like many things enjoyable or not, I prefer selfish acts of indolence to productive acts of generosity that ultimately benefit myself as well. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about touching the hose at all – not even once. My father, the jack-of-all trades that he is, saw to that.
If my mother is not traveling with my father, she knows in her heart that my father will take care of not only the plants but also of everything else. It is not in his nature to sit still for longer than an hour long news segment (unless it is very late at night), or to let things fall apart or stay in disarray. I inherited this from him, a desire to purge and clean and organize – though I do it almost exclusively in my own space. My father has a larger conscience than I – and even though rather annoyingly, he likes to be recognized for his “achievements, (“Do you see what I did with the bamboo grove today? Doesn’t it look so neat like a Japanese garden?” Or “Look at these lunches I packed you!”) I would be very narrow-hearted to say that he does not deserve it. Thus my mother knows that her husband – he who masquerades as a sloth on weekday evenings in front of the TV but in actuality, is the king of efficiency and productivity – will take care of the garden, take care of the house, take care of the lazy, easily fatigued, adult, live-at-home daughter in her absence because it is in his nature to do so.
But a smart woman, my mother knows better than to ask him directly. My father no doubt grew up thinking that old joke, “Today is opposite day” was endlessly amusing. In Chinese, we say people like that take great joy in “singing the opposite or minor chord” and for the most part, these people are huge pains, as my father is. But my father is also reliable in the way a man ought to be, especially if he is to talk so loudly and be, in general, a huge pain. He assumed the role of housewife upon my mother’s departure, donning yet another hat in addition to the ones he already wears: bread-winner (and maker, as lately he’s been tinkering with various banana-bread recipes), voice-of-reason, advice dispenser, organizer, laundry man (though this is one chore I do prefer), and a long list of other roles.
Long ago the divisions were made: my mother’s domain was the garden and the messy vanity area in their bathroom. Rather than makeup and perfume – the accoutrements of most women’s vanities – my mother had stacks of Chinese homework and textbooks, pens and pencils she scavenged from wasteful students, and special offers from nearly every Las Vegas casino resort, a testament that even otherwise frugal educators can have foolish and extravagant vices. My father lay claim to the family room, taking the central spot on our curved black leather couch and the small, wooden round table in the corner where he reads his emails, browses the paper, and clips Costco coupons. He is also in charge of cleaning and organizing the garage. The kitchen was like the middle part of a Venn Diagram, where husband and wife converged to cook grand dinners together when they entertained or simply, when they each had ideas about dinner that just so complimented each other.
|Old Man in Garden by Don Lindemann|
Here’s the thing: when my father is gone, my mother stays in her domains and never ventures into my father’s. Why should she? She doesn’t read the newspapers, nor does she watch TV. The garage is just where she parks her car. But when my mother is gone, my father, though you could not tell from his face, almost gleefully assumes the role of gardener as well, and disappears into the yard for hours on end. The garden, because of what is produces, is closely tied to the kitchen and when my mother is home, the clanking pots, running water and tinkling glasses are usually an aural sign of her presence. However, sometimes the kitchen falls unexpectedly quiet and I come out of my room to find the kitchen empty and the back door slightly ajar, a pair of black house slippers awaiting my mother’s feet to re-inhabit them, sounds replaced by this simple image. Recently however, I still hear the clanking and the rushing and the tinkling, and sometimes, when the sounds stop, I enter the kitchen to see that there are pots bubbling on the stove, vegetables diced on the chopping block, and the back door slightly ajar with my father’s beige house slippers standing by. The television is invariably on, the sounds wafting into the kitchen – and the overall effect is calming, as is the knowledge that even without my mother, my father can keep things running smoothly for all of us.
Like clockwork he removes his socks after dinner each day and steps out and into the backyard to water his wife’s plants until the sun goes down. He does this after a full day’s work, after spending a half hour making dinner for himself and his adult, live-at-home daughter, who during the summers, comes home from work to swim and then sleep for an hour. She eats with relish because her father cooks what she loves, and after dinner, does the dishes, memories of her father being a huge pain briefly suspended in her gratitude for the meal, lovingly prepared. She soaps the dishes and thanks her father for dinner, reminding herself that nothing and no one, no matter how steady or reliable or invariable, ought to be taken for granted. The father nods, pleased that his daughter is both fed and happy and without further ado, steps out into the warm evening air to water the plants his wife adores.