The weekend brought both St. Patty's Day celebrations here in Chicago and topsy turvy weather (65 degrees one day, 40 degrees the next), both of which signal spring. It's the time of year when you stand in front of your hall closet for inordinate amounts of time dithering about which coat to wear, never quite certain that the trench coat will truly be warm enough but so sick of the parka that you'll risk it. It's also March Madness! I was for Kansas all the way until I saw their extremely tough bracket (what's up with that?). But I think I'm still on the Kansas bandwagon.
It's also the time of year when my mom starts (!) getting ansty to get out in the garden. In our biweekly 10-minute phone call she mentioned she had already cleared a path to the garage from their back deck. She'd been hemmed in all winter by the several feet of snow out her back door. Having access to only one exit for five months can make even the most sanguine person jittery. My mother is not exactly sanguine. She has a hard time sitting in a chair for five minutes. She has an even harder time when someone else (like my dad) sits in a chair for more than five minutes.
Winter is a patient season. It drives her nuts. She's been eyeing that back door for months now. It is that back door that leads to summer--it's where the garden is, where dad's train shop is, where the apple tree is. It's where they sit on the deck in the mornings taking in the sun. But for five long months, it's where snow accumulates. And accumulates.
This year, to pass the time, she hauled out the knitting basket again--and knitted exactly one scarf, which was about 20 feet long. She has little patience to learn the patterns and delicate maneuvers it takes to knit, say, a sweater. Instead she tackles scarves and mittens. As kids, our mittens were always these gnarled mitts with oversized thumbs, and our scarves were three inches wide and 15' long. I'd usually resort to curling my hand up in a ball inside the mitten for warmth.
Winters as a kid were a frozen affair. We always had snow measured in feet, not inches. And the snow plow (aka a tractor with a plow attached) would pile the mounds of snow on the corners for us kids to build forts in, slide down and build barricades behind for the snowball fights. The guys in volunteer fire department would arrive with their hoses and make us a skating rink at the ball park. We'd pull on our skates at home, snap the rubber guard on the blade and toddle a couple blocks to the rink, where we'd skate for hours until our toes were blue. When the setting sun cast the snow in violet, it was time to head indoors, where soon the smell of wet wool drying on the heat vents would fill the air.
Many of my friends owned snowmobiles back then, and I was crazy for one. I begged and pleaded but my mother would have nothing of it. Too noisy, too dirty (aka, too declasse). Just get on a toboggan, she'd say. Yes, we had a big long wooden toboggon amid the sea of newly marketed slippery slides. Not gonna get one of those either.
My default plea was for a snowmobile suit and snowmobile boots. I loved the idea of stepping into that astronaut-like body suit, zipping up from the ankle up to the chin, then snapping the snaps (that extra shield against the wet--they thought of everything), and clipping the waist-cinching belt just so. Arctic Cat had the coolest suits--black and purple. Please, please, I'd beg. Nope. A coat and long underwear was just as good. It would not be the first time that I was the odd man out in the snow fort. Don't even get me started about Halloween.
By March, however, even snowmobile suits have lost their allure, and the confines of winter have worked their way deep into your psyche. By now, my mother is pacing like a caged lion. The scarf is stuffed into the bin and forgotten. She's rearranged the furniture four times and repainted a couple of rooms. (She's a tiny woman, but even pianos were no match for her.) She's now ready with paint to tackle the deck. And she's been planning her garden in her head--for months.
Normally, plants are rooted to place, literally. They don't travel--except in my mother's garden. She'll start in the spring as soon as the snow is gone, when the earth is still cold and wet. My dad, the consummate farmer, will tell her once again that all the roots will get pinched and suffocated when that mud dries up and hardens like a brick of clay. But to no avail. She has to get out there.
By late May, she'll have moved half of what she planted in mid-May to another spot, and so begins the merry-go-round of flowers that is her garden. She digs up a clump of Snow on the Mountain and hauls it over, clods of dirt dropping off on the way, to the other side of the house, where she hurriedly digs a half-hole and plops the new resident down. She tamps it down and heads off to the patch of baby's breath for a similar attack. No watering, no careful digging of a perfectly sized hole. It's amazing anything lives. Chalk it up to the freakishly fertile soil in Iowa. You can't kill anything, even if you try.
(Her snow-in-the-mountain is a bit of a slut by now. She's taken slips of the stuff to my sister's garden, to the three homes they've occupied over the last decade, to my Aunt Ruth's garden in Mass., and to my own in Chicago. The plant gets around.)
And yet, the constant shuffle manages to look fantastic in late July. She does have a knack--I'll give her that. Her creativity is the broad-brush kind--the kind of a set designer versus a craftsman. Perfectionism is overrated in her book.
I've often wondered whether her constant moving is more than a desire to get just the right splash of color in the shady corner. It's her, down to the bone: always on the move, always looking for the better spot, always thinking it's better over there, always craving change. She herself landed in a garden that on many levels is anathema to change: Iowa and the Midwest. Farmers are not big changers. They live by a rhythm and routine that is change-averse. And yet, here she is, in the land of the steady. So instead she breaks all the rules of gardening, refuses to let me become one of the snowmobile-wearing herd, and stays on the move, always one step ahead of the restlessness.
So here's to hoping for an early spring, for my dad's sake because in my parents' home, March madness takes on a whole new meaning. And me, even if I have to shiver through it, I'm putting on the trench coat.