Monday, December 20, 2021

Abundance in the Time of Less (The Garden)

I was eight when the old woman across the street knocked on our door and gave us a cornucopia laden with vegetables. My parents thanked her, and I peeked out the window as the woman went to each house in the neighborhood until her cart was empty.

The next year, Ms. Gartner asked my parents if she could hire my brothers to help in her garden, which was growing so big that she couldn’t keep up with the composting, planting, and harvesting. I begged my mother to let me go too. Ms. Gartner’s smile was wide, and she clapped her hands and said how wonderful it would be if I could help deliver baskets throughout the neighborhood. My mother nodded her approval, and told my brothers and I to follow all of Ms. Gartner's rules.

When I was ten, my father worried that the fines for water overuse would prevent Ms. Gartner from growing enough food for our neighborhood, on which everyone had become quite dependent. My oldest brother told him not to worry because there would be plenty of water. At her instruction, my brothers had installed a water capture and recycle system, and my job had been to watch the drip lines that sent water across the garden while Ms. Gartner showed us all how to set the timers and adjust the spigots to ensure a proper flow to each row. I boasted to our parents that my and my brothers’ hard work was why our family would get two baskets full of vegetables and fruits all year.

My father worried again when the scheduled water cutoffs began, and he still worried even when I accompanied Ms. Gartner from house to house to deliver both a basket and a bucket to each neighbor. She asked that whenever they did dishes or washed clothes or washed themselves, that they collect the excess water in the bucket and one of my brothers would pick it up when it was full. If they would contribute their grey water then she could continue growing her garden and send full baskets throughout the neighborhood. Most neighbors agreed, and we delivered baskets even to those who had little or no water to spare.

Early one autumn, my brothers went to each home and set up gutters, pipes, and barrels to collect and store each family's gray water and any rainfall that dripped from the roofs. They installed these catchment systems at abandoned houses too. Ms. Gartner instructed us to check each barrel once a week and, if there was water, take the barrels and pour them into the garden's cisterns. Whenever we had a good rainfall, neighbors helped because the barrels were many and heavy. She explained that by working together as a community we could ensure the garden would fill our plates year round with fruits, vegetables and nuts.

My father grew suspicious as unscheduled cutoffs grew more frequent. He assembled all the men whenever strangers wandered into our neighborhood and broke into an empty house. Ms. Gartner and my brothers continued to work in the garden but my mother kept me inside until the men chased the strangers away.

My father was always too busy to visit the garden, but one day while I was checking the ripeness of the yams, I overheard him tell Ms. Gartner that he had a gun. That he would protect her as he would protect his own family. Ms. Gartner told him thank you but no, if anyone comes to her home asking for food then she would gladly give it. My father scowled at her reply, but went home without voicing his objection. She did not know that he made my oldest brother carry the gun until the day my brother pointed it at strangers who stood watching us work.

A small child peered from behind a man who stood in the garden walkway. Their hair and clothing was filthy and tattered, and I could smell them from the row of green beans I was weeding. My brother yelled at them, go on, git! The child trembled but the man remained still when Ms. Gartner walked over to him and offered her hand. Welcome, she said, what do you need? The man pushed her down and went to the nearest row and plucked a small melon from the ground. That’s when my brother dropped his rake and took the gun from his pocket. The man hesitated, then pulled the child into his arms and ran away.

Ms. Gartner didn’t bother to dust the dirt from her clothes. She stood in front of my brother and held out her hand. Please give me the gun, she said. My brother said he couldn't, and put it back into his pocket. She said, that thing cannot be here. Ever. This garden is for anyone who needs to feed themselves and their family. Do you understand?

I was glad when my brother obeyed and went home to get rid of the gun. He returned a while later with my father leading the way. My father shouted at Ms. Gartner, I will not let my children work with you if you will not protect them. These are dangerous times, and that filthy man will come back. More like him will come and they will take everything from the garden and leave us to starve.

My hands balled into fists, and I went to Ms. Gartner's side and glared at my father. She placed her hand gently on my shoulder and said, I have always shared what I grow, and I always will.

My father turned beet red but he looked at me and left without saying another word. He, my brothers and mother shouted at each other all night. I didn't want to fall asleep until I heard each of my brothers refuse to carry the gun because my mother said it was Ms. Gartner's garden and therefore Ms. Gartner's rules.

While they argued, I saw Ms. Gartner walking down the road carrying a backpack and a basket from the garden. She didn’t stop at any of the neighbors' houses, but kept on going into the dark. Later, when it was past my bedtime, I saw her return without the backpack or the basket.

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Our community has grown in population, and the garden has grown with it. There is a lovely citrus grove where Ms. Gartner is buried. Strangers come with flowers to lay on her grave. Some bring seeds they wish to plant, and some pour water into one of the big cisterns. I usually stand with my hand on my step-daughter’s shoulder until they have finished, and then I say, welcome, what do you need? And they, in turn, help with composting, planting, and harvesting until their baskets are full.

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