In the past ten years, Women’s Voices has posted scores of stories about romantic love—adolescent love, fraught love, long-lasting love, love betrayed. For our Valentine’s Day coverage this year, we looked for stories about love in the broadest sense of the word—romantic love, sibling love, love for one’s community, love for a friend, the love between parent and child . . . Here’s the fourth story in the Valentine’s Day series we’re calling LOVE IN ALL CONTEXTS. —Ed
One of my very first memories as a toddler is wearing nothing but little Wellington boots and a sun hat, poking at ants’ nests with a stick in my parents’ garden on our tea plantation in Darjeeling. I screamed at the top of my two-year-old lungs when the army of half inch-long ants crawled into my wellies and took acid-bite revenge.
The second memory is squatting beside the maali (gardener) as he was transplanting baby tomato plants into the vegetable garden. I waited till he had planted a few and then deftly plucked them out and tossed them on the ground. In the beginning the maali was very calm about the mischief and replanted them. After a few plant purgings he became impatient and went to the house to tell the Memsahib about her naughty child. I stayed hidden behind the headboard of my parents’ bed for hours.
I was sent to a private boarding school in a beautiful property owned by one of Queen Victoria’s Ladies-in-Waiting near Windsor Castle that included farmland, cows, pigs, chickens, and some ducks. A patch of ground beside a corridor of classrooms and facing the tennis courts was set aside for the youngest boarders, to plant and tend their own little four-foot-square garden at the weekend. I recognized that earth and took to the soil happily, planting seeds, looking daily for signs of sprouting, tending the fast-growing radishes and lettuce and proudly showing and sharing them with my six- and seven-year old friends.
Most little kids like what their friends like, until they start developing their own preferences. I didn’t know it or name it, but I grew in confidence with the fascination and understanding of what can happen in the earth. I started knowing things without learning them, finding ease and developing skill, allowing delight at success, and, along the way, discovering joy. Isn’t that what love is?
Then a chasm drop. When we reached eleven and transferred to senior school, we were required “to put away childish things.” Deep breath. I developed skill at drawing and painting. My subjects were still-growing-but-not-moving: plants, flowers, trees, and gardens. It was in this cerebral rather than active phase that I migrated emotionally from a crop farmer to a gardener.
The English, like many other cultures, developed a very particular style and ethos in garden design. Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll were amateur gardeners whose contributions to country house garden design in England and the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is unparalleled.
Everyone who had a house in the UK had a garden—front and back. My parents had a modest three-bedroom house in Buckinghamshire with front and back gardens, garage, greenhouse, garden shed, which stored all the gardening equipment, lawn mower, wheelbarrow, hedge clippers, garden fork and shovel, etc. The vegetable garden was at the back, well out of sight from the house. Compost heap, bonfire patch, potatoes, green beans, peas, leeks, carrots, lettuces, and berries in rows were not worthy viewing. Hedges and trees separated the “farm” from the “garden” that stretched up to the French doors of the drawing room.
I was allowed a little corner patch with an apple tree, bordered by blackberry bushes on the far side and a gentle curve of lawn in the front. Being newly entranced by the beauty of representational art, I tried to create a simple “painting” with my patch: taller, bushy climbing rose at the back; sprouting strong-leaved iris and gladioli staking a claim to fame in the middle ground and smaller, fluffier, delicate annuals that would flower with audacious flutters at footfall during the warm summer months.
As I grew older and school and then college took me away from home, I abandoned gardening activities but retained the silent love and devotion, frequently visiting country houses and walking through dainty English villages with cottage gardens tousled and reckless with shrubs and flowers amidst the jamboree of family vegetables and the copiously flounced, pretty plantings on the edges of lanes and roads.
Now working and living in London, I made friends with my downstairs neighbor, Maggie, who, I recognized immediately, had the same passion. Manchester Square is one of the last privately owned squares. She saw me peering through the iron railings and answered my questions about the plants she was growing and then knew I was a garden kin-sister. She gave me a key.
Summer evenings in England—which is in far-northern latitude—glow long into the night hours. I hosted friends for delicate evening picnics on the lawn in the summer; we would read poetry and snatches from favorite novels, or play a guitar, mandolin, or violin and speak, laugh, and debate softly, so the neighbors and settling birds could sleep.
Then I moved to the Caribbean, where it was summer year-round with grandiose, vibrant, wide-smiling plants I remembered from India. Here was excitement and passion, and “gardens” were wild, haphazard areas with no politeness or compliance to form. No dainty sandwiches and sipping tea for these coconut palm–monitored hills and terraces. They danced and drank rum!
Here my small efforts at tending my garden took place in pot plants on our lightly fenced verandah, since the grounds around the house were groomed by local goats. Even the mango and avocado trees weren’t immune from their hunger plunder.
Then. Welcome to The Big Apple! After living on a small island that had no traffic lights, no street signs, no cinema, a short eighth-of-a-mile- long, one-car-wide “high” street with little houses left unlocked and painted in bright hope, faith and charity colors, I experienced a profound whack of culture shock!
Buried alive in dense traffic, pushing, subway shoving, stores and shops and malls and rushing; people hunched in personal hurry through their minutes, lunch hours, commutes, days—life. All was dusted and muted in gray with no smiles anywhere. Where was the love!
It took time to erase the yearning. The planted median along Park Avenue, pretty in winter’s holiday lights and daffodil-dappled in spring, sadly seemed the equivalent of window-shopping while homeless. And, though Olmsted described a great spread of nature’s spaciousness in Central Park’s large yawn of land, this was no salve for my urge to touch the intimacy of my lifelong friend—the soil beneath my feet, which invites me to converse through the grace of growth, sunlight, water, and willing plants.
Walking along New York City streets was like leafing through lite garden-porn magazines. I found garden stores to loiter in, thinking it would help. It made me even more lovelorn. I tried growing plants on my windowsill. The pigeons plucked the leaves and stems and tried to roost in the pots. One day a bar across the street shut its doors. I waited a few days and took pity on the two forlorn, expiring trees in large, cigarette-butted, littered planters on the sidewalk. I had them moved to the sidewalk outside my door.
I cleaned. I watered and spoke kindly to the trees. They responded and began to lift their frail leaves toward the sky and grow little promises of light new buds. Then I blessed the freshly turned soil with plants. My landlord noticed and complimented me. There were trees planted along the sidewalk. I suggested I could play Gertrude Jekyll in SoHo. He agreed and dug even more plant plots along the sidewalk and brought in more tree planters.
Each of the ten patches was designed as a separate unique garden, or “room,” as Jekyll would have described it. The planter opposite the dry cleaner reflected the colors of their store–yellow and purple; I asked the owners of the antique clothing store what colors they liked; the fancy clothing store on the corner would be happy with whatever I chose. By including them as consultants I seduced my neighbors to invest in my relationship, to keep an eye on people littering or treading on them. They were willing garden guardians.