The following essay by Susan Bono is the title essay from her new collection What Have We Here: Essays about Keeping House and Finding Home. We reprint it this week with her permission. To learn more about Susan’s writing and the place of the personal essay in her writing life, please see last week’s interview.
What Have We Here
By Susan Bono
Ours was an old yard to begin with, planted in the early ’40s when the stucco house perched nearly alone at the top of our steep hill. Shortly after we moved in, someone slipped an envelope of small black-and-white snapshots under our welcome mat. They showed the house and the land around it in all its shocking newness—no mature camellias, roses, bougainvillea, or bird of paradise to soften the angles of the walls, no hedges to define the property lines, no trees and ivy to cool and shade. Over the course of forty years, it became a green tangle of interesting, if poorly arranged, plantings that I, as an unskilled new arrival in 1981, did my best to care for.
This garden provided gifts in small, isolated views—the cascade of miniature pink roses on the roof-high Cecile Brunner, the graceful droop of the pepper tree with its trailing strands of berries, the voluptuous throats of the callas, the tiny, fragrant violets. But there was no overall harmony of proportion or color, no level spot for outdoor furniture, no easy way to water or retain the earth pushing over the edges of makeshift retaining walls.
After fifteen years, I gave up trying to impose a sense of order on that which kept moving toward ramshackle and wild. What once charmed me had begun to overwhelm and horrify. Last fall, before construction began on my backyard office, I would stand on the cracked and slanting patio, or on one of the crabgrass infested terraces, and imagine a garden that could replace this awkward, work-intensive, virtually useless space. Surely, the hefty home improvement loan we secured would bring about a dream I would be capable of maintaining.
Since all of the sprinklers were broken anyway, I tried to let most of the vegetation just die, to kill off any connection I might have had for things on their way out. As the grass withered, and the edges of leaves turned yellow, I kept the image of a level, green, automatically watered oasis firmly in my mind.
A year later, with still no yard renovation in sight, my charming office rests like a jewel in the palm of a penniless beggar. I watch from the window over my desk as visitors pause, momentarily disoriented by the chaos of rubble and tumbled earth. They must pick their way over wobbly stepping stones, past flower beds whose residents have foiled my plot for their demise. The survivors of my personal little war lift their straggly, unloved arms out of the waist-high crabgrass, determined to endure. Their persistent growth causes me seizures of guilt, the way my children’s shaggy hair, unclipped fingernails, beat-up tennis shoes, or messy bedrooms do. Every time I brush against untrimmed branches on my way to work, I think of drawers crammed with outgrown clothes; shelves that bear the weight of odd-sized table linens, fancy, unused muffin tins, forgotten toys, and baby blankets; all my smudged cabinet doors and failing appliances; those piles of unsorted laundry and mail.
There is so much to care for, plan for, do. I am at the age when every man and woman I know has entertained the impulse to walk away from the complex machinery of their lives, to turn the pages of a new book. I want to look out at a field of possibilities the way my grandparents must have gazed over the virgin prairie of Saskatchewan when, as newlyweds, they posed for a friend’s camera in front of their sod house.
But there is no such thing as starting from scratch. Even in the new land, my grandparents farmed with their ancestral language, customs, and ambitions. My grandmother used no pre-mixed packages in her baking. She made bread, pies, and sometimes noodles from the staples she stored in shiny canisters in her kitchen. But she used many recipes from her girlhood and some of the same utensils for more than fifty years. I have her old potato masher, measuring cups, and mixing bowls, as well as the heavy galvanized watering can my grandfather used in his garden. They are as good as new because they were cared for with a diligence that I have never even tried to duplicate.
There is a broadness to my world, a certain casualness that my grandmother in her time and place did not cultivate. Her blue and white kitchen was tidied after every meal, no exceptions. Twice a year, she took everything out of her cupboards and washed or repaired it. I cannot possibly know the price she paid for living like this, but twice a year, she could put her hands on everything she owned, take stock, keep, or discard it.
I think of all that goes untouched, unseen in this garden, what is forgotten, what is secret. Buried in my dreams for the future is the garden as it is at this very moment. Lying hidden behind the massing weeds and unpruned branches are markers on the graves of kittens and guinea pigs, containers of leaf-scummed water, clumsy birdhouses, rusting whirligigs. There is mystery, and a purpose that draws hummingbirds to the perpetual blossoms of the lemon tree. Even now, when the afternoons go cool, I seem to catch the scent of ghostly violets.
I have recently discovered a spot near my office door that can hold, not an unaffordable hot tub, but the calla lilies I dug up last year before we poured the office foundation. They have begun to wave green flags above the edges of the box I tossed them into and forgot about. I marvel at the juiciness sprouting from these warm, dry tubers, and remember the pictures I took of my youngest with his three-year-old arms full of creamy flowers, their long stems dragging the ground. There is a chunk of acanthus, too, that our friend Steve brought seventeen years ago as a housewarming gift from his own garden.
In a fit of ambition, I step hard on the edge of my shovel near a pale, spindly branch of what looks like a rose pushing through the packed soil. It must be a volunteer from a piece of root we neglected to dig out. Perhaps it is the one whose fiercely pink blooms I loved, but not enough, I thought then, to bother saving. I celebrate its possible resurrection now with a little fertilizer and press around its feet tiny corms, grape hyacinth, perhaps, or peacock orchids, that I found in a shovelful of fill dirt. I edge this patch of newly reclaimed earth with pearlescent abalone shells my husband and his friends have accumulated over years of diving. I take a childlike pride in something I have made and understand a little better the pleasure I have seen on the faces of other women who have been busy in their gardens.
A few days later, I stand on what I hope will be a patio one day, cutting the dry ends from my husband’s hair. I think of all the women who have performed this intimate service for their men and children, how my mother-in-law talks about pruning the boxwood and ivy as “giving it a haircut.” And my mother, who approached my unruly bangs with masking tape and manicure scissors. No one ever said, “Children grow like weeds” in my family, but I think of my own sons sprouting at every joint. As I imagine liberating a cluster of purple irises from the tangling crabgrass, I notice more silver at my husband’s temples. I will feel time passing in my own body as I set that flowerbed straight, and in the stiffness of my muscles for days after.
Soon I will be digging up clumps of Bermuda root as big as my head, stooping to sort stones and bits of broken pottery, combing the dirt with gloved hands to gather more trash and treasure. I will find red plastic circles of spent ring caps, cat’s-eye marbles, and rusting Matchbox cars, proof that my children once found this yard good for something. I will remember their search for Easter eggs in the wild, juicy grasses, the old bottles and glass my husband has turned up. I will rescue one of the last violets, miraculously green after a summer of no water, and move it to a shady place I cleared under the camellia.
Time in the garden forces me to reconsider my definitions of harmony and order. It is the season now for the sturdier web spinners. They have draped their glistening pennants over the fading, but still productive tomatoes, pulled yards of filament from porch pillars to listing shrubbery. Their lacy forms appear under the eaves of the open canvas umbrella or stitched across the dead heads of roses. They billow gently in the light breeze, firmly tethered to what I would like to dismiss as chaos. Butterflies and other winged insects whir toward blossoms that I, in a more organized frame of mind, might treat as weeds.
I must learn to be guided by the harmony of small views—the blue of bee-hummed rosemary behind a spray of pink roses, autumn’s sharp-edged shadows etched on the western wall, iris tubers hunkering like crawdads in the worm-worked earth. A white butterfly rests for a moment on a lettuce leaf; heavy clusters of Meyer lemons hang among green leaves. If I put the last of the cosmos into a vase and place them on my dusty nightstand, I may be inspired to put away my carelessly tossed clothes, spend a few minutes straightening towels in the linen closet. As I wipe crumbs from the kitchen table or water the African violets before their mittened hands droop to listlessness, I am reminded that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. I seek out my children, then, by the sound of their voices, let my hands rest for a moment on the widening bridges of their shoulders.
There will always be too much to render radiant in my life, too many sinks to scrub and weeds to pull. Whether I work with patience or fury, everything around me seems to be in a bigger hurry than I am. My thirteen-year-old walks to school in shoes the size of his father’s. The youngest wonders what it will be like to drive a car. The dishwasher breaks, the plumbing backs up, keys disappear, friends arrive, dust collects on the fading drapes. Night comes earlier than it did yesterday; the trees empty their arms of leaves. Photos yellow between the covers of albums; the garden sends its roots into the ancient hillside.