With the garden being bigger this year and having much less rain than last summer, I’ve been spending more time in it. At the beginning of the season, I worried about feeling overwhelmed by having to take care of so many plants. There were times last year when I would remember I hadn’t checked on the plants in a while because it was raining enough. But I was also learning the hard way that bugs and critters will take advantage of my absence. So I would drag my ass off my comfy spot on the couch and begrudgingly go check on them. But this year is different. I want to check on them. When I’m stressed out about work or by asshole Supreme Court Justices, the plants help ground me. I greet each one and check on the soil and the leaves. I worry over the lack of flowers or whether they are dropping off prematurely. I cheer on any baby fruit or vegetables that start to form.
I can actually get a little lost in my time there, especially after work. After I water everyone, I Iinger, like the last person at the party who doesn’t want to go home. I recheck leaves and admire the little green tomatoes and prickly cucumbers. I look for ones I may have missed. Finally, either hunger or the receding daylight or the mosquitoes drive me back up to my deck and into my apartment. I go into the bathroom to wash my hands and arms, and when I Iook in the mirror at my graying, blown around and humid/sweat frizzy hair, I see her.
She was the the aunt of my best friend, Ruthy. Ruthy lived down the street in one direction and Aunt Seal lived down the street in the other direction. She lived with her sister and mother, and was sister to Ruthy’s mom. I practically lived at Ruthy’s house in the summers, and we kids were often sent between the two houses to deliver/pick up food, dishes, supplies, and vegetables from Aunt Seal’s garden.
I only learned much later her real name was Cecile and they called her Cile for short. My kid ears always heard her name as Aunt Seal, and she will remain that for me always. Also, as a kid I never thought twice about their living situation — the two sisters living with their mother and no kids and no men. I was a kid, so I can’t know for sure, but they seemed perfectly content with their lives. Although to be fair, Ruthy had 6 siblings, so they actually did have kids around, plus extra hangers on like me. Aunt Seal and Aunt Rita were like night and day. Aunt Rita worked at a bank and was always dressed nicely and neatly and seemed to be in charge of most things. She had a kind, if blustery temperament that was similar to Ruthy’s mom. They often issued commands and corrections, delivered with an exasperated smile. Ruthy’s grandmother was a French Canadian memere, and she was a cute, quiet, tiny little slip of a women who spent a lot of time in a comfy chair and what little she did say was in French.
Aunt Seal was altogether different. Gruff and a woman of few words, she spent most of her time in the back yard garden that stretched the length of a house lot to the street on the next block. We were sometimes sent to help her weed by Aunt Rita or Ruthy’s mom, but as I recall, it felt more like we were intruding on her sanctuary, and we were always doing it wrong. Sometimes she did command us to follow to the garden when she picked some vegetables to take to the other house. She looked like a gardener out of central casting. She always wore old clothes, and her thick fingers and calloused hands featured dirt under her fingernails that defied soap and brush. And that crazy hair. Gray, short, and frizzy from being outside. When we were sent to memere’s house for something, we always hoped we’d encounter Aunt Rita, rather than Aunt Seal. It was always better to deal with Aunt Rita directly, but if she were around she would often soothe over whatever gruff comment Aunt Seal found fit to deliver.
I hadn’t thought about Aunt Seal in years, until my recent forays into the yard this summer and my glance in the mirror. I thought, OMG I’m turning into Aunt Seal. And then I thought, cool. There are worst things than being an independent woman, living among women, having a whole garden to call your own. And I admit there is a certain attraction to being a curmudgeonly older woman who prefers the company of her plants to that of most people.
When I moved away in 1983 to go to Boston and BU, I didn’t look back, and taking such things for granted, I didn’t give them much thought. However, I just looked up her obituary, and she passed in 2003 at 77 at home. I hope it was peaceful. Her obituary said she worked part-time as a hairdresser, which is just kind of perfect. She always seemed retired to me as a kid, but doing the math, I realized she was around 50 when I was being a nuisance in her garden. Younger than I am now. The childhood view is so weird, isn’t it?
I’m thinking of you now, Aunt Rita, memere, and Aunt Seal, and I hope I can garden as well as you — I already have the hair down.