On My Mother's Gardening


At the house in Pittsburgh where I grew up, we always had a garden.

This garden was my mother's labor of love. My father was very good at tearing things down, ripping them up. Our house might as well have had an "Under Construction" sign permanently affixed to it--there was never a period of time during which a wall didn't have a large hole in it, a floor wasn't stripped of its tiles, or some wires weren't hanging lifelessly from a spot where a light or switch should be. Many of those projects went on for years because my dad was skilled in the art of demolition but wasn't particularly adept at making things new.

My mom, though--she knew how to grow things. All along one side of the house, she kept a garden she maintained as long as I can remember. Most of what she grew supplemented a Korean diet. On the side closest to our front door, she grew lettuce--we would use this for wraps that included rice and Korean beef. Next to the lettuce were the pepper plants--these were spicy green peppers. We'd dip those peppers in a crimson-colored paste made from another pepper. When people ask me nowadays how I can eat such spicy food, I attribute my tolerance to those peppers. Tiger Woods' father started him on golf early on; my mother made me eat spicy food. Thanks, Mom.

Farther down in the garden, she planted a Korean variety of Perilla called Kkaennip, which produces green leaves kind of like basil, kind of like mint, but not quite either. She'd pluck these leaves, marinate them in a spicy sauce, and we'd have them with almost every meal. To this day, I crave these leaves. The very few places I've been able to find them don't make them quite like my mom does--they taste like disappointment, every time.

In addition, we always had tomatoes (regular and cherry), green bell peppers, and some new, short-lived experiment like radishes or carrots or cabbage.

I learned so much about the process from my mom. She always had me helping alongside her. We'd churn up the earth with cultivators and our fingers, and I'd freak her out by holding out an earthworm I'd found because she's code-red, meltdown-level terrified of anything that resembles a snake. We'd put stakes into the ground and tie the top-heavy tomato plants to them to correct their terrible posture. We'd put up chicken wire to keep the groundhogs and rabbits from freeloading on our supply. We'd yank weeds from the bed that didn't belong, and I'd learn that some are sharp and would fight to stay. We would throw our hands up in the air when we saw that our plants had been turned to shreds by insects or the rabbits broke through our defenses. We'd water them with the hose or the sprinkler or a mason jar depending on when we last had rain and how hot it was.

I learned that to create and sustain life in that garden was work.

That was my mother's lesson to me: the grit that comes with life. The dirt under your nails, the sweat falling from the tip of your nose, the blood and scratches that would paint your fingers and hands and arms.

My mother was the one who woke up before the sun, drove to church, and dropped to her knees every single morning to pray. Pray for me, pray for my father, our family, our church, and, I can only hope, herself.

My mother was the one who taught me what it meant to endure. To persevere through the discomfort and pain of my situations.

She taught me to dig, water, and wait--because life would sprout up and blossom somewhere on the other side.

These days, I don't have a garden. It's been years since I've had to plunge my fingers into actual dirt. But I still garden each day. I've moved on from lettuce, tomato, and pepper to people. To me, and my loved ones. We do this thing together.

Our hands are stained with brown and crimson as we turn up each other's dirt.

We erect fences to keep ourselves from addiction, from temptation, from complacency.

We hold each other up when our heads are heavy and falling to the ground.

We remove, sometimes violently, that which has moved in and is stealing our nutrients.

We weep when we find ourselves destroyed by what we could not prevent.

We cry out for water in our droughts.

We work, and we toil, and we create life.


Feature photo ©2011 Sarah Horrigan | Flickr