The Garden of her Life
If you summarised the garden in one syllable, that’s where you’d be. They were everywhere, woven through the garden and spilling over the path, plastered against the walls, and snaking in and out of a leaning, struggling fence. Through the gate Lara could see them reaching out towards the footpath. In the guttering they’d become a riot of colours; heavy-headed flowers bobbing up there, leaning cautiously over to see what might be down below.
And somehow she was the one in charge of sorting it all out.
Where had that short straw come from?
In fairness, Lara supposed, she had been offered help. “If you need anyone to help pull weeds, or lift and carry or anything?” They’d probably expected her to say ‘yes’, couldn’t really understand why she didn’t.
Didn’t understand that it was them.
In the days after Aunty Kippy died, Lara had just cried her eyes out. She couldn’t help it. And she certainly knew that nobody understood that. Strange old Aunty Kippy, who was a little bit mad and difficult to understand. Whose mind had been wandering for some years now. Quiet for days on end. Probably lost in that faraway past of hers.
Because she’d been close to a hundred, hadn’t she?
And Lara knew the rest of the family were wondering at that as well. A shame that Aunty Kippy was dead, of course; not as if anybody had wanted that. But she’d been very old, already out of touch with the world, so it’s not as if it had been unexpected. Why then was Lara, the family outsider, the distant, closed-off one, making such a fuss about it? Crying as if she’d lost a child or a life partner?
‘… another one who’s never been quite right, though.”
An orderly, sedate funeral. Lara the only one to show real emotion. Her sister even shushing her once for it. A warm, light atmosphere over sandwiches and savouries after. Family catching up with family. Relatives taking the time to update their family trees, to add each other’s children, to coo over how much those same children had grown. Aunty Kippy, assigned to the background already, a forgotten shadow, a faded photograph. Her imprint on the world already so washed out and faded. Her memory already left behind.
Lara picked her way into the garden. She was regretting going it alone, weeding her way through all this, but at the same time she found the solitude relieving. It might well be that this was going to take days, even weeks, but it’d be easier slogging through it alone than it would have been having them around. And she loved her family. In her own way. She really did. Just…
She knelt down on a mat and started laying out the gardening tools.
Just that they didn’t understand.
This part was hard. She’d already laid the spade and trowel out at the wrong angle to each other. Start again. And the little rake was actually longer than the fork, it should go third not second. She ran her hand along the top of them to make sure they made a nice even line. And if the family had been here, there would have been sidelong glances by now. A rolled eye or two. Expressions of tried patience.
It’d reach a point when she’d just want to duck for cover – throw her arms over her head and curl like a hedgehog. And then her prickles would all come out.
She didn’t need that.
The sun climbed the sky.
Lara worked her way along the flowerbeds. She didn’t know much about gardening really, she wasn’t sure what half of these flowers were, she struggled to tell the weeds from the invited plants – themselves so overgrown, so intertwined with the intruders. What did it matter so long as they were pretty, vibrant, healthy?
But she took them all. Dandelions along with pansies, roses along with thistles, sunflowers along with wildling daisies and tiny feral pines. ‘Too far gone to save,’ her brother Michael had declared, ‘not worth the effort. Best we just make a clean slate of the garden.’
After all. They were just going to sell the place.
Sell Lara’s memories that was. Her hidden, huddled childhood in that ramshackle cottage where there were old photos, old paintings, strange little squares of knitting or embroidery. Where there were cats – some twitchy and half-wild, who’d responded in the end to Lara’s patience, to the time and loneliness she had on her hands. Four-legged friends in a mad, friendless world.
Aunty Kippy watching over her as she fed the skittish tabbies from her hands – so proud of what she’d achieved. Aunty Kippy brewing up her famous herbal tea – and a little bacon broth for Lara and her chosen cat to share.
What about the socks strewn on the floor, or a forgotten plate here and there? And she loved the overlapping rugs. The days when she’d been allowed to visit Aunt Kippy – against her mother’s preference – had been the best ones, the days when she felt safe and certain, when she had belonging, and her world felt briefly warm.
All to go of course.
Michael would be around with his friend Bill to strip the inside. Tiffany would handle the furniture, and the real estate agent, and the lawyers. Leaving Lara with the garden – the easy job, since it was probably the limit of what she could manage.
Lara stopped to have a drink of water and lean back, surveying her work. She’d cleared the border all along the wall, and was working her way along the east edge of the fence. Flowers of all kinds of colours were laid out along a cracked path. Like bodies made ready for a mass burial. She’d found poppies and hyacinths, sweet peas, freesias, dahlias and carnations. There were others she didn’t know the names of: the white, curvy ones with the thick yellow stem in the centre; something purple and furry. There was one that caught her eye: furrier than even the purple ones, tall and white, with hard little buds buried amongst the soft, flaky petals. It had a shine about it – like polished sea-shells – and a pink centre. The plants held on with tenacious, iron strength when she tried to pull them. So much that she’d given up and let them keep their place. Argue with Michael about that later. The garden had seemed to infuse itself with a soothing, tickling scent when she made the decision.
Not weeds, she told herself, Aunty Kippy would have chosen those ones for sure.
She hated family gatherings. She did all and everything she could to avoid them.
Not that it ever availed. Some things in life are compulsory, and don’t stop being compulsory when you reach your twenties, even as you nudge your way into your thirties, childless and husbandless and with no great adventure, no great achievement, no stunning career to make up for the shortcoming.
Lara told herself that she did it for her parents. That she acted with a perverse sympathy for their situation. If she could find a way out of these events then she was saving her family the trouble of having to explain her away, saving them the embarrassment of having her there in the room, mentally unwell, under-achieving, just generally…
These memories made her want to count her fingers. They made her want to shuffle back along the narrow pathway rearranging pulled weeds in height order.
What her father would have said. How her mother would have cringed and looked away.
She remembered losing them.
Of all the family gatherings, all the possible options, that funeral had been the most awful. The most compulsory. She remembered standing in a knee-length black skirt, a white lace blouse with a short black jacket over it. She remembered seeing the distress all around her, the freed emotion, the tears. She had none of that inside her. She’d been an empty, scoured out shell. Her feelings weighed down with ambivalence, with a sense of it all being far away and unconnected to her.
These glowing testimonials from people she barely knew had conjured the memory of saints. But Lara didn’t remember saints – she remembered the impatience, the sad and disappointed looks, she remembered the chasm that had been there – she thought – all her life, and fully realised right then that it hadn’t been there for her brother and sister. Their grief was rooted in warm bonds, in a shared experience that Lara hadn’t realised just how fully she wasn’t sharing.
And then Tiffany, hovering. “Are you okay, Lara?”
“Do you need anything?”
“A bit of time alone?”
And that was the problem. Too fine. Fine when public decency demanded that she be hysterical, distraught: it wasn’t right for the broken one to be so together, so composed, at a time like this. Almost of as if she didn’t care.
She’d cared. She knew she had. But not the way she’d cared when she’d lost Aunty Kippy. Even though a quarter century or more had passed since the days spent hiding in that house.
“It’s the delayed grief for her parents. Funny how these things come out.”
It wasn’t. Of course they all knew it wasn’t.
The growth of weeds was thickest in the northeast corner, the garden most thoroughly embraced by vine and nettles, by scanty roses with huge, beaked thorns. Odd little huddled flowers made their appearance amidst a thick carpeting of moss. All this must have taken years or generations to become what it was now. A half day and she was already tearing a wedge through the ecosystem, leaving it barren, undressed, ashamed.
But we keep Michael happy. And if we keep Michael happy we keep him at bay. And there’s no talk about private clinics, about a friend of a friend of a friend who’s a well-respected psychologist.
She pulled her face up against its urge to crumple. Swallowed tears that made her throat hurt. Not today. And her trowel dug into the ground with the force of her tide of wrong feelings. It struck something hard that rang like fine metal.
Aunty Kippy was the one whose life wasn’t talked about too much. Lara’s mother said that Kippy – short for Kimberley – had always been the problem child. She didn’t want to go into details – these tantrums and flights of fancy had been hard on the other children – Lara’s grandparents – and it wasn’t the right thing to bring them up.
She’d left home young – with rumours attached to that that’d caused the family to blush. “It was no such thing,” her mother was at pains to point out, “there was no illicit pregnancy, to be hushed up, such as was best at the time. Nobody knew why she went away, why she was gone so many years, out gypsying or whatever it was.
“Her health wasn’t good. Mental or physical.” And she’d look thoughtfully at Lara, wondering about the interplay of nature and nurture, searching her face for signs of some tell-tale gene, the killer fault.
While Lara remembered a presence that was never cold. The woman who might not say much, but didn’t have to say much. The woman whose presence was a comfort and a shield. And as she’d grown up, her sanctuary had kept its roots. She could still find Aunty Kippy when she was just having more trouble than she could stand. She could still go there, sit in front of the fire, feed chicken to one of the cats. They might talk a little, they might not, Kippy might get her guitar out and they might sing. If it was a song Lara didn’t know she’d find herself still capable of singing along, finding solace in the lyrics, letting them feed her strength.
There might be cookies later. And they might sort through a cupboard or a set of draws, or maybe some old photo albums, explaining very little, throwing almost nothing away. Often late into the night.
And if she’d sobbed away her sanity grieving for that, well too bad. It’d always been Aunty Kippy, for as long as she could remember. Aunty Kippy and nobody else. That’s just the way it was.
Lara dug around the hard spot she’d struck with her trowel. When she brushed away the dirt, the sun caught it, as if it had been newly polished, a small rounded chest held together with silver. There were silver wires embedded everywhere in a deep, caphor-smelling wood; silver ornamentation sunk into the wood, along the joins, scrawled across the top. It looked as if it would be securely locked, or at least welded shut over time, beneath the weight of the earth and everything growing in it.
Instead, the catch lifted easily. The chest was lined with a sultry maroon velvet, and filled with an odd mix of objects. They were all Kippy’s, Lara was sure of that. A small figurine of a cat with its head held high; a model aeroplane; a few patches of square silk; a few marbles – of a type Lara didn’t recognise; a small notebook, well scribbled; a pen; a thimble; a tiny ceramic box containing hair and teeth. A round clay hedgehog uncurled in her palm, nothing but brown clay and spikes, but there was warmth in it all the same. And a photograph, an old one, but Lara recognised herself as a baby, the adult face perceptible through the infant as a promise, a hint.
How long had all these things been buried here? Since the photo was taken? The same photo she’d seen in her mother’s album, but it looked different here, the colours hadn’t faded over time at all but brightened. She felt the little hedgehog snuffle along her palm, saw the cat turn its head slowly to watch as the marbles rolled together.
How many years…?
It was at that moment that Michael called her. “How’s the garden going?” he asked.
Lara wrapped the chest in her cardigan, smiling at the changed colours of the sky. “I think it’s going pretty well, actually.”
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work