One day many years ago, as my husband and I strolled through the streets of Milan, he posed this still-puzzling observation: What is it with Italian men? One day they are strapping, tall and handsome in quilted coats; the next they are hunched over, cap-wearing old men playing bocce in the town square. Nothing in between! Where is the missing link?
In the past month, I've been applying this same question to North American middle-aged women. What is it about us that one day we are blurs of industry -- running households, running offices, simply running -- and the next we are in floppy sunhats, puttering about our yards and bending over small shrubs with pruning shears?
For me, it started this way: Once we got through our reno last fall, I spent the subsequent months sitting in our new kitchen, sipping my coffee, and staring out the beautiful new windows at a completely devastated back yard.
Aside from the detritus left behind by our contractors -- some overlooked 2x4s, bits of irrigation pipe, stones from an old fireplace -- most of the lawn and beds had weathered through more than a year of tramping and hauling of heavy equipment.
What hadn't been devastated by the crews had been devastated, at great cost, by us: Over the decade we've lived in our Washington, D.C. house, assorted landscaping "professionals" have had a go at making our yard more presentable. To this day, my husband and I still can't speak about some of the old trees that were cut down by some genius who persuaded us it would "open up the view" (it amounted to a much better view of our neighbors). Another highly lauded man we'd hired to landscape an area adjoining our recent renovation proved to have a great talent for sending invoices and rather less for actual work: We had to fire him finally when his bills threatened to exceed our entire garden budget, with still not a single plant in the ground.
And what hadn't been destroyed by man had been finished off by nature. One of the massive hurricanes that blew through D.C. a few years ago knocked down a neighbor's ancient ash: it crashed into our backyard, flattening a row of boxwood planted early in the last century, and sheering off the branches of an equally old stand of magnolias. None of it, alas, covered by our homeowners' insurance.
So as I sat with my coffee, surveying the wreckage -- so much bleaker in winter! -- decided I would have to take charge in the spring and plant the garden myself.
Except I had one big problem: I have no natural affinity for plants. Like: none. Zero. I mean, I like to look at them and all, and I can appreciate a beautiful landscape as much as the next person, but I have never displayed any gift for gardening. Indeed, every change I'd personally overseen in our own yard had ended in disaster. What's more, I'd never been able to keep so much as a houseplant alive. Nor was I interested in doing so. Since they always turned out to be brown, leaking, unsightly things, why bother?
But burned by the so-called pros, and left with this post-nuclear view, I figured I'd just have to learn. So learn I did -- or sort of.
It's all been completely trial and error. I became acquainted with someone I call my plant "wonk" -- a walking human thinktank of botany named Eric. In early spring, he walked me through my yard. He'd pause enthusiastically over small, indistinguishable shoots pushing through the mud, or absently yank out a weed as he lectured me on the merits of using local plants. At moments his enthusiasm would cause him to shove leaves at my nose, inciting me to "Smell it! Smell it!" or urge me to taste something ferny-looking. But the upshot was an amazing introductory course to my garden -- not to mention an introduction to some "wild, really cool" plants I never would have otherwise met.
After Eric, I turned to a reliable neighborhood garden crew run by two Iraqi brothers. If you want to get a big hole in the ground dug quickly, I urge you to hire an Iraqi. I don't press them as to how they developed this particular skill, but they assure me that it wasn't under Saddam Hussein.
Now, armed with brains and brawn, I could start sketching. I bought tracing and graph paper. I pulled dozens of photos from gardening magazines. Over the years I had taken photos of gardens we'd visited on our travels; I pored through those as well.
Then I began. The first warm weekend that came along I was outside for two full days. I'm not quite sure how the children got fed, or the dogs walked, but I know that at one point my husband appeared with a gin and tonic, which I drank gratefully, and muddily. Any other free time I had was spent walking up and down nursery aisles, trying to teach myself to think in 3D, light, and growing seasons ("This one comes up in June -- 18-inches tall -- purple, full sun -- "a little scratch on my drawing where it might go -- "Now this one could work in a shady border -- ") And so it went.
But here's the thing: At some point during my digging and planting, pondering and planning, I realized I'd fallen completely in love with gardening. Rarely had I felt such peace or pleasure than at 6:30 a.m., with my wellington boots on, first mug of coffee in hand, gazing out at the areas to be worked on, a quiet house behind me. Creatively it was intoxicating. I'd been playing with words for most of my life, but plants, trees, and shrubs presented an entirely new and exciting medium. I understood a little how Matisse must have felt when, in old age, he abandoned paint for paper cut-outs.
Gradually, however, I discovered I was very far from unique in my passion. Conversations amongst my female friends were turning away from husbands, children and the politics of the day to such truly gripping subjects as ornamental grasses and water features.
I knew it had become dire when one of my friends -- vexed by a problem with her teenage daughter -- also casually mentioned that she wasn't quite sure what to plant in front of a border of rose bushes. She kept trying to pull me back into the issue with the teenager, but my mind was racing with possible choices of low, full-sun plants, and I pelted her instead with questions about her soil, the aesthetic she was trying to achieve, etc.
Why had this all come upon me -- and us -- so suddenly?
Something of an answer came to me -- predictably while I was tugging at some weeds and wondering where to relocate a shrub I'd decided I'd misplanted.
All of us are moving into the second half of our forties, and beyond. We have produced all the children we're going to have. Those children in turn are growing into individuality, beyond our nurturing or influence. Our biological clocks have not just stopped ticking but have rung and been silenced. What yearnings remain are re-directed to the not-so-distant prospect of grandchildren and maybe, also, to these tender plants before us.
Our own stamens may be weakening, our freshness wilting. But here are living things we coax and care for from infancy. They are living things, too, whose destiny rests completely in our care. As we watch our own children gradually float away from us like the spores of dandelions, blown and buffeted by winds over which we have no control, towards a destination we know not -- here before us are beautiful flowers that promise to come up year after year, in the same spot we planted them.
This is what I'll be doing on July the 4th.