We called Dad the “Mad Pruner” for his interest in yard work lay in weeding, trimming, and lopping. His library on gardening was extensive through years of birthday and Christmas gifts as his daughters, friends and wife sought to steer him toward planting and nourishing, but beyond flipping pages, the idea never took root. Removal was his passion.
In Weekapaug, when he was not reading in his faded, overstuffed chair in the living room, taking a lie-down upstairs, or poking around in the fridge for a snack, he would be barely visible, sweaty and white-shirted, somewhere in the hedge or roses, clippers in hand. Dead twigs, hydrangea canes, an over-zealous autumn olive, a pebble driveway gone to weeds – these suffused him with a mix of dismay and glee. They were offensive intruders, but they were the means to his beloved task.
He brought little knowledge to his work, and often a promising plant fell beneath his blades: the healthy, thriving, though not yet budding daisies I’d planted last August; a riot of vibrant magenta thistles deemed odious despite their beauty because “They are weeds.” Snip. Tug. Gone.
Still, the work was taxing, and scratched, bruised and bleeding, Dad would lumber into the house, waving aside offers of Neosporin and Bandaids – the returning warrior with no time for fluttering women. Over the past few years, once he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, the bruises did not go away. “Your mother won’t let me out of the house without a long-sleeved shirt,” he’d grumble. But there was almost pride in the way he’d roll up a sleeve to show off the purple blood pooled just beneath his skin. Battle wounds.
Last summer, as if knowing it was time to store images, I took pictures of Dad: sitting on his fold-up garden bench, his back to me, arms deep in the rose bushes. Unheeding of prickers, joyously jerking out jewel weeds which grew tall and plentiful, but gave way with the slightest tug. Kneeling on green foam pads at the edge of the lawn scratching up weeds with a three-pronged tool, his hands encased in leather garden gloves.
Two weeks ago, Dave and I went to Weekapaug for the first time since Dad passed away. What would it be like, I’d wondered, to be there without him?
We’d spent the previous night in Boston with my son Tucker and his fiancé, Lisa. We’d watched my in-laws’ nephew, Alex Cobb, pitch for Tampa Bay against the Red Sox on Friday night and, on Saturday, tasted cakes for Tuck and Lisa’s wedding. So our mood was buoyant when we pulled up to the gray-shingled house Saturday evening.
It usually takes me several tries to unlock the door; too many of my keys have the same triangular head and heaven forbid I should label them to make things easy. Anyway, this time, the first try worked. Right away, I went out to check the screened porch.
During the winter, perhaps in January, the month Dad died, our house-sitter, Jan, heard a flapping noise when she came to check on the house. It was not the rhythmic sound of a windblown curtain or shutter, but that of something alive. Unnerved, she peered into the basement and glanced hesitantly into the dark rooms. Ultimately, she discovered a large white owl trapped on the porch. An owl…
The weekend of Dad's death, numerous incidents occurred that appeared to be signs: lights blowing out, orbs in photographs, a needed address written in Dad’s hand appearing at the right moment. Mediums say spirits often appear in the form of birds. Might Dad have chosen an owl? I’d love to think so.
When later I spoke with Jan about the incident, she described her fruitless calls to the police and animal control, where she got the “Sorry, Lady. We can’t help you,” line. Eventually she and a neighbor were able to slip onto the porch, open a door, and retreat to the lawn where they kept watch until the owl flew free.
After noting the jagged tears the bird had ripped in the screens, I wanted to see if I could sense my father in the house, so I took my suitcase upstairs and went right to my parents' room. I imagined him lying on his bed on the white and blue striped coverlet, looking over as I entered, saying, “dearest child.” It was so easy to call him up before me. Oh Dad.
After the afternoon’s cake-tasting sugar load, we’d planned on a light salad for supper. Once we’d unpacked, we tossed lettuce, avocado, trail mix, tomatoes, mozzarella, lemon juice and olive oil. I lit candles as Dave turned off the lights and poured a glass of red wine for me and a tumbler of Goslings gold rum over ice for himself. Dad would have approved. It seemed we both needed to spend the evening with Dad, so we raised our glasses in a toast and reminisced. We recalled Dad’s full-out, body-shaking, eyes-squeezed-shut laugh: it had been a while since life dished Dad a morsel to trigger that.
After dinner, we curled up together in Dad’s chair in the living room. The navy blue slipcover is faded, the springs broken from the many times Dad flumped into its arms. It was tight for the two of us, but it was where we wanted to be. When shredded wads of tissue proved no match for our tears, we passed Dave’s damp red bandana back and forth.
Sunday’s weather was uncertain until late afternoon, so Dave and I spent the day doing yard work. The koosa dogwood was a cloud of blossoms, the hydrangeas heavy with buds. Dad would have shaken his head with disgust at the weeds flourishing between the flagstones on the patio. He would have threatened a good dose of “Round-Up,” and my sisters and I, concerned about herbicides near the wetlands, would have shot down the idea. He would have sighed dramatically, pulled on his leather work gloves, fetched his green sponge knee pads, and lowered himself laboriously to the ground to poke at those unwanted plants with a forked tool.
But he wasn’t there to do it.
So Dave and I rummaged among Dad’s tools in the garage, selected the necessary supplies, and set off to our chosen projects. With electric trimmers, Dave tackled the overgrown hedge of holly, while I pruned and weeded around the row of hydrangeas lining the house. Wearing my father’s work gloves, I felt the grit in the gloves’ fingertips as he must have, and enjoyed the quiet in the bushes as I pulled grasses and jewel weeds, then shook loosened dirt free of the roots. As Dad would have, I breathed in the whiff of roses, the soft breeze there in the shade. I relished the birdsong and muffled roll of distant waves.
I imagine Dad liked the peace as much as the work, the respite from worrying women telling him what to do, telling him to be careful, telling him what to weed, what not to weed, what to clip, what not to clip, and how long to do it. As I snipped hydrangea limbs that bore buds, I felt a twinge of guilt. How many times had my sisters and I insisted to Dad - firmly, sternly – that budded boughs be spared? But I wanted to open things up a bit, separate the overgrown bushes, and grant the daisies breathing space. I talked to Dad as I trimmed, grinning at my daring in pruning as I wished, picturing him amused, maybe even proud, of my boldness.
Dave worked on the holly for hours, his face flushed and dripping. The two of us laughed as we stood back to admire the tamed hedge, knowing that if Dad were with us, he would have commented on the few stray twigs that escaped the trimmer, saying, “Dave…you missed a little something.”
Gardening is about soil, weeds, plants, and twigs. Should that limb stay or go? Is that blossom worth blocking the view of that boulder? It is an astonishingly successful route to staying in the moment. I hope, despite his shortness of breath and bruised skin, it had done so for Dad.