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A Wet June

Last year was a rainy June; long gray sheets fell nearly every single day. When you’re used to planting in mid-March and giving up mid-July, that much summer rain is ugly weather. Umbrellas were useless. Streets swelled and swept away cars. On the TV news the white water swallowed a kayaker. In a single week of that drenched June, a friend’s mother committed suicide, two friends announced their husbands had walked out and dozens of stink bugs appeared on our tomatoes.

The rain was the stuff we dreamt of in past summers, when the soil cracked like broken bones beneath our feet. I remember thinking: this must be what Seattle is like -- highs in the 70s. We kept a towel by the door for our shoes, ventured out to see the tomatoes hanging green, then pushed off our muddy shoes by the door and went back to drinking coffee. We had time to catch up on things like email. 

One after another I read: Betsy’s husband had left her for another woman on Mother’s Day. Diane announced her sudden new job as single mother of twins. Then Ruthe, after a lifetime of achievement followed by months, maybe years, of depression, was gone. 

It's easy, when walking one’s own winding path, to believe that life is exactly what you happen to be feeling at the moment and no more.  As my own life continues to bloom like skinny trees that have made it through both winter and summer and aspire to give shade, my friends’ losses remind me that someone else's life, at the very same moment, is taking the opposite swoop. And beneath the sadness I felt for these women, I also found myself swelling with gratitude. Thank you for reminding me that life is a cycle of wins and losses, births and deaths, growth and lying fallow -- things our gardens whisper every day. And this is what I teach my son. Nearly four years ago we planted salad greens on September 11th, silent and alone in the black earth, the evening blessedly cool. At Thanksgiving we ate a bowlful of fresh greens, some shaped like oak leaves, others rippled like a flounce, some dark green as the sea.

After the rains left last summer, we enjoyed an avalanche of green beans, proper amounts of Japanese squash and jalapenos, and enough red and yellow pear tomatoes to make a hundred bright necklaces. The beef steaks suffered from attack and produced rare red jewels. Swiss chard dwindled and the corn was spindly and disastrous. The zucchini barely pulled through, stems riddled with borings despite my sort-of weekly treatments. Basil is always sweet. But the real winner last summer was the Israel muskmelon, a sleeper that appeared to intend to take over the planet. What could be a better peace keeper than softball-sized melons with soupy green flesh sweet as a baby’s kiss? Eventually, July moved in, a red-head who drinks too much and smokes and eventually killed our garden with her passion. I wonder if it was passion, or the lack of it, that led my friend’s mother to end her own life. A writer and historian, she had a huge appetite for knowledge and stories, especially those of people who had been silenced—women and Latinas and Jews. And yet while the sun shone upon her and she grew the most devoted set of friends and eclectic shelves of books, some dark spirit was moving in. Over night it seemed, though perhaps it happened subtly over many years, her passion wilted away. Despite the devotion of her family, the education and compassion of many doctors, Ruthe died.

Every spring (and fall) we wonder: will this be the year tomatoes pile up until we spend every Sunday canning them in joyful desperation? Will we ever again pick 40 ears of corn in a single day, handing out samples to everyone we see so we can all eat fresh sweet gold tonight? Will the broccoli last all winter again? My friends, near and far, remind me as our lives unfold each day that there is no way to answer these and all the other questions. Acceptance, grace, gratitude, luck, good works, all these may help. But then again they might not, just like the “correct” way to plant, or the right soil mix, or those expensive heirloom seeds. Yet, we’ll try again, despite soil that wants to revert to clay and limestone, a dry spring, a hot spell, a cloud of stink bugs—because that’s the nature of we living things, to live. Except for some of us, and even my garden cannot explain why.
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Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Contact her at motherload @ austinmama.com  And visit her site at www.robinbradford.net

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