Gardening in time of crisis has brought me closer to my mother

She once brought to life a neglected back yard and after years of distance we have now reconnected over plants and vegetables

tree sapling hand planting sprout in soil with sunset close up male hand planting young tree over green backgroundPK9X6A tree sapling hand planting sprout in soil with sunset close up male hand planting young tree over green background
‘When I shared that I was planning a garden, she told me stories about gardening in her native Honduras.’ Photograph: Sarayut Thaneerat/Alamy Stock Photo

It was the deck that sold me in late 2016, when we saw the Bronx apartment we now live in. For years, I dreamed of living somewhere that overlooked a forest. I imagined plants hanging on the windows, and a backyard garden like the one my mother had created in 1980 behind our first-floor apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn – although I hadn’t inherited my mother’s green thumb so I didn’t know how I’d care for all that greenery. The only plant I hadn’t killed was a golden pothos, also known as devil’s ivy because it’s nearly indestructible. But that’s the thing about fantasies: you don’t have to figure out the how. You get to dream up a garden you don’t know how you’re going to maintain, until you get the chance and you do.

Over the years, I expanded my vision and my handy wife helped bring it to reality. She put up hooks and installed shelves and planters. Then came the pandemic, and I set my eyes to the deck in a different way. If we couldn’t go anywhere, I would create a space where we could relax and remember hope, despite multiple ongoing horrors, from Covid to unarmed Black folks being murdered by police officers, to how the government, and specifically the president, were failing us.

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Gardening during times of crisis isn’t new. There were the victory gardens of the second world war; the Black Americans who took to the soil during the Jim Crow era; and the immigrants and inner-city residents who did the same for decades in vacant lots, my mother among them.

She moved us into that first-floor Bushwick apartment the year Reagan was elected, and went right to work clearing piles of garbage from the long-neglected backyard and tilling its soil. In her newfound oasis, in a sofrito-stained nightgown, she used her right leg to push the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil and squirming earthworms. When the earth wouldn’t give, she got on all fours and used her hands. Then she went out and bought seeds. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, peppermint and rosemary, sunflowers and geraniums.

By mid-summer, we had a lush garden and I’d learned to climb the plum tree in the corner of the yard, scuffing my sneakers and scraping my shins and knees in the process. It was from my perch on a branch that I witnessed my mother’s joy when she first saw evidence of baby tomatoes and peppers. I picked a still green plum from a branch and bit into it. The bitterness burned my tongue.

This is my first memory of longing for my mother.

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In March, when the pandemic hit, shuttering public schools and so much of the city, I turned to my deck. I recruited my family and we started germinating seeds. I also made the decision to call my mother, whom I hadn’t spoken to in months.

I reached out because when there’s a global pandemic, you call your mom, even if you’re estranged. That week I brought her groceries, and we started video-chatting every day. When I shared that I was planning a garden, she told me stories about gardening in her native Honduras. When I visited her, I didn’t go into her apartment; she kept her mask on and spoke to me from a distance. It didn’t feel odd because social distancing is the norm with her. My mother’s not affectionate. One day she passed me a gallon-sized storage bag filled with medicine bottles, most empty, some with a few pills that clinked when they collided. That’s how my mother told me that she’d had Covid and braved it alone.

At 44, having left my mother’s home 31 years ago and spent most of those years feeling unanchored in the world due to her absence, I stopped hoping for a reconciliation long ago.

But this pandemic has gifted me time with her that I haven’t had in decades, and a connection we’ve never had. We talk about my plants and vegetables. Mom is always ready with advice, and stories of working the land with her Abuelita Tinita. She smiles and I realize that despite the devastating hunger and poverty she endured, her childhood was filled with some joy. I remember that so was mine, and much of that I experienced in my mother’s garden.

My mother created life and sustenance in a world that told her she wasn’t worthy of such beauty. Isn’t that similar to what I’ve done during this pandemic? It makes sense that nature is where we find our first and greatest metaphors. That’s where I’ve chosen to place my hope. I am better for it.

Vanessa Mártir is a multi-genre writer and educator, and the founder of the Writing Our Lives Workshop and the Writing the Mother Wound Movement