There she is: Mrs Wyndham. Bent over her roses, pruning shears in one hand,s pray bottle in the other. Somewhere under the voluminous straw hat is her little quizzical smile, her eyes lined from squinting against the harsh sun. As far as anyone can tell, Mrs Wyndham lives for her flower garden. I probably know her better than most, and I would have to agree.
She never has a bad word to say, poor thing, though heaven knows she has reason. But dig, dig, dig, clip, hoe, weed, no matter what time of day you walk by. It’s a rare day when you don’t find Mrs Wyndham in her garden.
I met Mrs Wyndham five years ago, when I first moved to the neighbourhood. I walked by on a regular schedule, dragged behind my huge half-Irish-Wolfhound, half pure-mongrel, Sisyphus (I had named him after the never-ending task of talking him for walks). It suited me though. I love to be outdoors but I like to be on the move, especially in those days. If I hadn’t so urgently needed to move, I might have become a gardener sooner, myself. Perhaps that was why I admired Mrs Wyndham’s garden so much; why I always reined in the straining hound for long enough to talk to Mrs W.
“What’s new, Mrs Wyndham?” I shouted in early spring that first year, clinging on to Sis’s leash but keeping his big trampling paws away from what turned out to be her snowdrop shoots.
She raised her head and beamed at me from under a woolly hat.
“Hello, my dear,” she said, taking off a glove and brushing away a stray grey curl from her forehead. “Ah, you are just in time for the riot of spring.”
I must have looked dubious because she pointed at the brown, leaf-covered beds until I began to see yes, the snowdrops buds, the white-striped ribbons of green that would bear purple crocus flowers in a week or so, and the swordlike tips of the daffodils nosing up through the earth.
“It’s a quiet riot yet,” she said. “But just you wait.”
All through that spring Sis and I walked and walked. I was walking with a purpose — away from the misery of the past 18 months and just as importantly, away from the kitchen of my tiny cottage and the consoling pleasures of the icebox and the wine-cooler (I had insisted on keeping the wine-cooler). I had spent almost a year immobile on my tiny patio, only moving to shovel ice-cream into my mouth or lift a glass of cheap zin or, occasionally, to hurl something at a figment of my ex-husband in the overgrown shrubbery behind my tiny new home with all its unhappy, unpacked boxes.
When I had belatedly caught up with my doctor in worrying about my health, I had taken her advice and driven to the pound to pick up another lost soul, to care for. I chose the largest, most rambunctious dog my yard could contain and began to walk. I had walked through the fall and met Mrs Wyndham over her gloriously pompommed front flower beds. I had walked through snow and sleet and waved to her as she fussed with holly-and-evergreen window-boxes on her front porch. I had only ever seen Mr Wyndham once, in the fall, when he had been worshipping his championship lawn as suburban men do. I didn’t see him at all, that winter. With the lawn dormant, I guessed, there was no reason for him to be outside.
Daffodils were joined by tulips and along came the waxy greens of what would be shasta daisies, and the fuzzy circlets of strawberry leaves and still we walked.
Occasionally I was struck by the sunny strip of land down the side of the Wyndham house. Where the front of the house was a harmonious blend of deep curved flower beds and neatly trimmed lawn, the side garden always made me laugh. It looked to me like a battleground, staged and ready for the bugler’s signal. A line of shrubs and wildflowers faced off with a wide strip of manicured grass. It was early in the season yet, but even I could tell that, come high summer, Mr W would be fighting a rearguard action against creeping vines and stems gracefully drooping across his front lines.
I teased Mrs W about it once and it was the only time I ever saw her perfectly proper demeanour crack. She rolled her eyes and said, almost bitterly,
“His beloved weed! Taking up that prime spot. Look at it, my dear, a beautiful, secluded spot. You can only see into it from this angle, no other, because of those sheds and shrubs. I had it earmarked as a reading garden, with a bench and rosebushes…but the Mighty Lawn must have its place. It is neat! It is tidy! It is orderly!”
I was a little taken aback, to say the least.
“You could still put in a bench,” I ventured.
“And sit on a green carpet and stare at a blank white wall?” Mrs Wyndham seemed to regain her good humour. “No, my dear, I should feel like I was already in the nursing home!”
The red maple by the sidewalk unfurled its purple, finger-like leaves. The cherry blossoms snowed down on us, and Sisyphus learned to slow down, even sit sometimes, as we passed Mrs Wyndham’s house.
One day, Mrs Wyndham led me over to aleafy plant on the border of the sidewalk, lifted a leaf and showed me a cluster of three crysalides. I was delighted. I thought I was starting to know how those bloated, formerly-caterpillars felt. The final paperwork was signed, I had taken back my name, and my walks with the bounding houdnling were transforming me inside and out. I was no butterfly yet, but I could at last imagine a day when I might be one.
It was around that time that I had to leave for one of my two-week stints at head office. I hated to leave Sis, but it was only two weeks and then we’d be back to our pretty sweet deal where I telecommuted and Sisyphus dragged me around the neighbourhood as often as he possibly could. I stopped by to see Mrs W befoer I left, and told her my plans. I hated to think of her worryign if we didn’t bound past at least twice a day. In the end, I had a bit of trouble making myself heard over the drone of Mr W’s lawnmower.
“First cut of spring,” Mrs Wyndham shouted. “Very important, apparently!”
I waved goodbye and left her bent over the returning asters, checking for damage inflicted by the neighbourhood’s ravenous rabbits.
My doctor, who had talked me into this canine caper in the first place and who was, surprise, surprise, a big-dog lover herself, had recommended a kennel that, she assured me, dogs didn’t want to come home from. But my Sisyphus was crazed with excitement to see me, and I don’t mind telling you it felt pretty good. As I drove him home, I really felt, for the first time, as if I was going home. As soon as I got there, I resolved, I would throw out all those unhappy boxes containing parts of my former life. I wouldn’t even open them. Yes, I would start as soon as I parked the car…or maybe after a little stroll. After all, I hadn’t seen Mrs W’s garden in over two weeks, and that’s a long time in late-spring in the garden.
As I rounded the corner of the block, hanging on to my ecstatic dog for dear life, I searched the garden for a sight of the familiar canvas hat bobbing about. There was none. I tightened my grip on Sis’s leash and quickened my pace. It was so odd not to see her out front on a day like this. We drew up close to the house and Sisyphus (good dog) slowed down and began to root around near the mailbox. Mrs Wyndham was definitely not there.
I stood, a little lost and a bit disappointed. The cherry tree had leafed out in my absence, the blossoms all gone, and the shade dappled the sidewalk in a soothing kind of way.
“Oh hello, dear,” sang out a familiar voice. “You’re back, then?”
I looked around. Where could she be?
“Over here!” There was a girlish giggle in her voice, pleased at having confounded me.
I took a stop back and peered down the side of the house, skeptically.
What devastatioN! The war of turf vs. roses had been waged during my trip, adn the flowers have won a decisive victory. There sat Mrs W, perched on a sturdy wooden bench, a curving path of pavers already winding a casual path through the turned-over soil. Not a blade of grass remained.
Mrs Wyndham stood up and almost skipped from stone to stone through her new domain, towards me. A couple of bare rose bushes and a scant few shrubs poked out of the glistening brown loam in a few places.
“It’s going to be a meadow!” she said, stepping through the side gate. “I’ve always wanted to try one, but He thought it would look too messy.”
“How did you manage it?” I asked. “What did Mr. Wyndham say?”
There was a pause. Mrs W’s face was a perfect mask.
“Mr Wyndham is gone, my dear. Ran away with some hussy from the office.”
I gaped, unsure what to say, but Mrs Wyndham rattled on, quite evenly.
“I expect I shall have to get a little part-time job to keep things together. I think one of the garden centers might take me on, don’ t you?”
I was at a loss. On the one hand, I knew how completely I had fallen apart when my husband had run off. On the other hand, Mrs W was a woman of a different generation, and one who had endured a long and apparently incompatible marriage. She certainly seemed to be taking things with equanimity.
“So,” I said, for want of anything better to say. “A meadow.”
‘Well yes, dear. The wonderful thing about a meadow is that, after the first year, Nature takes care of it all. In my changed circumstances that will be a plus, don’t you think? I shall be like the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and all that. Although I might have to learn how to operate that Weed Whacker thing come the fall, hmm?”
“But,” one thing still bothered me. “How did you manage all by yourself? All that grass?”
She looked up at me from under that wide canvas brim and smiled her little quizzical smile.
“Determination,” she said.
She looed at Sisyphus, nosing amongst her Phlox.
“Perhaps I shall get a cat,” she murmered.
It has been five years now, and nobody seems to know where Mr Wyndham went and he certainly hasn’t been in touch, not even to retrieve his car. Or his lawnmower. Poor Mrs W did have to get a job to support herself but, sure enough, Napoleon Gardens took her on and she seems to be thriving on it — her garden certainly is. All the lawn is but a distant memory now. The front yard is a network of plantings linked by paths of uneven pavers salvaged from the Napoleon Gardens reject pile, and put together in a beautiful crazy-paving web.
Sisyphus has grown up and mellowed to the point where we can stop and join Mrs W in her flourishing side meadow garden and my big silly dog will lie at my feet while we discuss seed saving or water management (oh yes, she’s sucked me in to this gardening thing. All the walking has left me quite trim enough and the bending and straining after weeds don’t bother me at all. I started a meadow garden of my own but I never could get it to take off the way Mrs W’s did. When I ask her for advice her eyes twinkle and I just know she’s hiding some secret from me.
And quite right too. She has become a bit of a native meadow expert these days, quite in demand. In fact, later this week another national magazine is coming out to shoot pictures in her garden and talk to her about her unconventional yard, especially that wonderful side meadow of hers.
When they inevitably ask her for her tricks she will, as she does with me, smile her quizzical smile and answer firmly,
“It’s amazing what you can do with determination and some really good fertilizer, my dear.”
And sometimes, but not often, I pause to wonder what Mr Wyndham would think of it all, where ever he is.