Suzanne Cope is a writer and writing instructor who splits her time between Somerville, MA and Brooklyn, NY. Her current projects include the memoir Locavore in the City (Michigan State University Press) and Small-Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Cheese, Pickles, Chocolate and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press), as well as personal essays and articles on food culture for various creative and academic publications. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction and her Ph.D. in creative nonfiction pedagogy and teaches writing at Berkley College of Music and Grub Street.
Phlox, portulaca, daffodil, chickweed, heliotrope. These are vocabulary words for the new language I am learning for my summer job as a gardener. During my first week of work it is still a novelty to don my oldest jeans and stuff a backpack with snacks and water and sunscreen, band-aids and ointment for cuts, and an extra long-sleeve shirt. To come home dirty and sun-kissed as the spring and summer days of the northeast become warmer and longer and are filled with promise. On those days, too, I am a beginner again. After a school year of teaching college freshmen to strive to become better writers through practice and study of grammar and vocabulary, I enjoy learning new words and new rules, too. For the first time in a long time I can be a beginner. This also seems perfect for the season during which I am getting married – just an honest day’s work of digging and pruning and planting while I prepare to embark on a new phase of my life.
Do you have any siblings? What does your fiancé do? Where are you from? These are the new questions I am asking my colleagues and they are asking me. We are a particular crew in that all of us have a college education and have turned to working with the earth because of a love or need for something different, difficult, and beautiful. It has been a long time since I worked side by side with a stranger, our instincts taking over yet not bored, having the time and mental energy to chat. I want to know more about the soft-spoken, tattooed man from the western part of the state and the outgoing brunette who will be studying to be a counselor in the fall. She asks me questions about my betrothed and he makes quiet jokes as if he wants to get to know me as well. Like the hosta leaves just starting to pierce the ground, our stories slowly unfurl – a lost love in another country, a past vocation that was not what she had thought, my admission that I wanted to learn about the flowers and plants I so admired to help make my new home my own. We lose ourselves in digging old roots from a new patch of dirt, in carefully separating dying flower buds from those that have not yet bloomed.
Our tentativeness is the very opposite of our boss – a professor of romance languages during the winter who grew up with horticulturist parents and wears her heart on her sleeve. She loves us, her crew, immediately. She laughs often and is inquisitive, frequently sharing intimate details of her life. She asks about my wedding planning; we hear about her family.
I learn on my second day that a tragedy befell her halfway through her recent pregnancy: an unexpected death of a parent and the loss of her childhood home. I think of how much strength she must have to be so positive in the face of such a senseless and random occurrence. I am amazed that she can still make jokes while she constantly talks to her sweet son, who quietly entertains himself as he accompanies us on jobs, at least for now, until he starts to crawl. Once or twice that afternoon, however, I notice her gaze travel past the lush garden we are tending and back to her past. Only her son’s happy cry return her to us.
On my third day she admits that the tragedy has sapped her spirituality. She feels that she can’t accept negative feedback; she knows that she takes actions of others too personally, even if it is a decision that is purely business. She muses on this as we drive past a gardening job she thought she was to be hired for, but appeared to have gone to someone else.
“How would you deal with that?” she asks me, barely more than a stranger. I am uncertain if she is asking about the events of the previous year or the lost job of replacing annuals and pruning small shrubs. I say that I would talk myself out of being upset. I would convince myself – even in the face of faulty logic – not to take it to heart. I feel that this is appropriate advice for someone who coaxes flowers to bloom in the rocky soil of city yards and who painstakingly plants bulbs that will flower for just a few weeks before needing to be trimmed back once again. I wonder, then, if this is why I was drawn to gardening: because I understand why certain things can defy what is expected.
“I would like to think I am doing something good in this world; that I am just trying to make it a little bit more beautiful.” We’re driving to another job site as she says this. Her gaze is towards the traffic-filled road, but also beyond it. In the backseat I pretend to eat her son’s toes and he giggles.
“It’s just, and I know how horrible this will sound, but I feel that what happened to me was unfair. I lost so many things that were very important to me – my journals, yearbooks, short stories – it just seems like too much for one person to bear.”
I don’t know what to say, so I quietly sympathize. I wish I could be more open like her, to tell strangers my fears in search of hope for a ray of light that might sustain me a few more days or weeks. I wish I could think of the perfect, beautiful prose to say to make it easier, better, if only for that moment. Yet at this juncture I can’t completely relate, as mementos from my past are not as important to me and I have yet to lose anything quite as dear as she has. Something dawns on me, however. Perhaps this is that why she is a gardener, even with her Ivy League degree, and maybe this is also how she will deal with her loss. Because of her desire – her need – to create beauty in the world, even if for a short while, only to have to repeat the process again in a few weeks or months or years.
It is late May, and I have been given the task of planting annuals in the dirt where tulips and daffodils once reigned. This is just one part of the cycle of death and rebirth that I am starting to comprehend, in regards to the earth but also to my fellow gardeners. I have been working for a few weeks and can now be sent off by myself to trim the earliest spring-blooming flowers that are dropping petals, leaving a bed that was once brilliant a uniform shade of wet green and readied for a new crop of later-blooming plants. My favorites are the deep red and bright orange Icelandic Poppies whose large and delicate flowered heads tilt towards the sun as if they know how brief their life will be in this northern climate and insist upon a few months of pure bliss. They perk up when I return after lunch to water their roots and start to look as if they had always been there, as if they belong. It took such little time for them to blend in with the colorful bed of roses and azaleas, stargazer lilies and sweet woodruff and lavender. I am still quite new, but I have learned enough to know that in a few months when I must deadhead these flowers, their petals will be tinged with brown and flutter to the ground at my touch; when I must cut them down to their soft, green stems, I will remember this day that feels more like summer than spring, still in the month of May. I will recall how I was neither warm nor cool, how the summer stretched out before me. How little Jack was not yet crawling, and I did not yet wear a wedding ring. Back when I still referred to the lycantheum as columbine, and questioned whether the fall blooming aster was a weed.