In spring, when the dirt smells fresh and exciting, I find it easier to dream. This past spring, I dreamed of an arbor.
My garden is nestled in the side yard of our home where the sun has the best chance to spread out. Closest to the house there are three raised beds where I grow peas and tomatoes, carrots and beets, herbs that lend flavor, nasturtiums and marigolds that dangle over the side of the bed the way my children spread out on the furniture when watching a movie. Against the fence grow wildflowers, sirening the bumble bees and butterflies, all of them dancing together like my garden is the hottest nightclub. From spring to fall it’s my favorite place to be.
In between the garden and the rest of the backyard there is a short, unassuming walkway. One day in late April, restless from an unsuccessful writing day, I wandered the path on my way to greet my early spring garden just waking from winter, hoping it would bring me inspiration. As I entered, I felt like something was missing, some sort of door that signaled the garden’s beginning. I wanted to create a boundary that made one curious about what lay beyond. My garden needed an arbor.
After multiple shopping trips and still finding none that fit my taste or budget, I decided to build my own arbor. Using simple chicken wire fencing, I staked in an arch about seven feet high and four feet wide at the beginning of the path. Then I planted scarlet runner beans along both sides. The little beans that went into the soil in May climbed and climbed, slowly wrapping their tendrils around the cattle grid in June. Delicate red flowers popped by July, becoming bean pods by August. Each time I walked through her green doorway it was like being welcomed home.
But now it is November. The first frost has come and gone and we’ll have snow by the end of the week. The evening is unusually warm for this time of year, but I can already feel the cool wind pushing its way through the trees, melancholy blowing in with it. Time to say goodbye to the garden.
I reach up into the arbor over my head and peel back the papery thin leaves, searching for bean pods drying on the vine, signs they are ready for harvest. Crunchy lifeless leaves fall on my head, delicate and spent, like confetti at the end of a party. In the golden light of this fall evening, I’m reminded the party is indeed over.
Ordinarily I might linger in this task, make a ritual of the harvest, one last contemplative meditation in the place that gave me so much life this past season. But my daughter Caroline has found me. It’s rare for her to lend a hand to chores these days; more often she chooses a book and the seclusion of her room. So when she asks if she can help, I can usually assume it’s because she wants to talk. I hand her the large stainless steel bowl I’m using to collect bean pods, an invitation. I’m listening.
While I hunt and clip, she talks. And when she talks, she leaves very little breathing room in between her words.
“I am so glad it’s Sunday and we have school tomorrow, I’m tired of these brothers bothering me and I get so bored by the end of the weekend, I miss my friends, I wish I could talk to them, except I know when I get to school I won’t have time to talk to them because they give us like no time at lunch, and also I know when I get to school I’m just going to get bored and wish it were the weekend, if they just let us read or write all day it would be so much better, but not like read or write the boring stuff, I want to read and write what I want to, which I know I could just do at home but every time I try the boys just get in the way, ugh why do they have to be so annoying?!”
She exhales loudly and slumps her shoulders over the large bowl in her arms. Her feet shift back and forth like she is trying to get comfortable.
“Well, that’s . . . a lot.” I offer a gentle smile and wonder if this is a moment when I should just listen and not speak. This is a new muscle I am trying to stretch—staying present and available, not offering advice. I drop a handful of pods into her bowl, forcing myself to pause. This muscle, however, isn’t strong enough yet. In fact, it’s spasming.
“It sounds to me,” I begin, keeping my gaze on the bean pods as I reach for another, intentionally avoiding eye contact with Caroline, “like you’re just focusing on what you don’t like instead of what you do like. It might make school, and home, better if you think about what’s good in each place.” I smile again, but this time in a less gentle and more a “you should listen to me, I give very good advice” kind of way.
Caroline meets my smile with a cold glare. I quickly return to my bean collecting while she shifts her body weight again, this time adding in a huff, “Mom. You are always trying to do that. I don’t have to be positive about every little thing.” She looks like she is about to drop her bowl. I’m not sure if it is because of the weight or if she wants to be done.
I brush my hands through the dead leaves, desperate not to leave a bean pod behind, and I think about her accusation. Am I always positive? I wonder. Lately I haven’t felt that way. I want to tell her I get bored and restless too. I want to read and write and do all the things that give me life. But where do I find the time? How do I gather enough energy? And what happens when those things that once were alive in me begin to wither and die? I don’t know how to be in the quiet seasons. I don’t know how to tell her to be, either, so I say stay quiet, like I probably should have in the first place.
With one last sweep through the leaves, I decide I’ve found all there is to find. “I think that’s the last of it. We can be done and start shelling them. Just give me a minute though. I want to tear down these old vines.” I begin tugging at the tendrils, and they crumble at my touch. They are ready to be done too.
“Oh, no, don’t!” Caroline startles me and I pause. If her arms weren’t full, I think she would yank my hands away from the vines. “Leave them!”
I pull my attention from the arbor to her face. “Really? Why? They’re done growing, babe.”
“I know. But I like them here. Let’s keep them. It reminds me of The Secret Garden, you know when Mary finds the rose branches all dead looking? Before she knows it’s a garden?”
I do remember. I love that story. It’s complicated and controversial, with harmful racist and ableist language. But the story is also beautifully told. I can’t help but root for a girl who becomes more of who she is among the things that grow. It’s why I planted these bean vines in the first place. I wanted—no, needed—a secret garden of my own.
I’ve been feeling dull and gray as of late. After nearly a decade of tending to my growing children, I’m restless to grow something more, something that proves there is life inside my walls. But I don’t know what that is exactly. Is it the life I had before? Is it something new entirely?
Growing this garden brought me back to life at first, just as the secret garden did for Mary. Watching a seed make something from nothing makes you believe in possibility. But the plants that once burst with green life reaching to the sun now barely hold on to the arbor’s walls. I don’t like to see my garden this way. It stings to have a constant reminder that what you once had is no longer.
And yet, Caroline asks me to keep the dying plants. What does she see? I wonder.
I think of her reference to Mary in The Secret Garden. It’s the lifeless branches that Caroline remembers, not the garden at the end of the book, in all its peak summer glory. The twisted, tangled branches didn’t turn her away in disappointment but rather made her want to look closer for life, to dig deeper. The garden inspired curiosity, for Mary and Caroline alike. Is this alive, they both wondered, hoped?
Maybe that’s why Caroline comes to me with her questions. She needs someone to walk through this mysterious place with her, to get down into the dirt, inside the twisted branches, and help her uncover life.
Now I’m wondering if she is inviting me to do the same.
We move to two Adirondack chairs in the backyard and place the metal bowl between us. Caroline peers into the bowl as if she’s just now noticing what we were collecting all this time. “Um . . . we eat these? You sure about that? These look super dead, Mom.”
I explain that inside the ugly shells are actually beautiful beans. Holding the pod gently in my hand I give it a shake, the rattling hinting at what might be inside. She watches, skeptical. I slowly push my fingers into the seam along the edge, feeling the two sides of the pod holding on tightly to the way they once were, until crack, the pod pops open. That’s when Caroline gasps.
“Oh my goodness, look at that!” she squeals and reaches gently towards the bean resting in the shell like a treasured jewel. Inside the dingy brown pod is a bright navy bean bespeckled with lavender and magenta, like a psychedelic watercolor painting.
I beam at her expression, pleased to be able to wow her even still. Her face glows with whimsy and longing. And because I can’t help myself, I say, “You know, it’s amazing how you can find something so beautiful inside something so ugly.” I grin and raise my eyebrows, waiting for the eye roll. She does not disappoint.
“Mom. Please. Stop.” But after the eye roll, she looks back to the bowl, smiles, then picks up another pod, drawn to open one herself.