Springtime in the garden always began when the pink azaleas started to bud. Dad would find them while checking the garden fence for rabbit tunnels and come inside with an armful of the tiny blossoms, ready to trim and slip into a Mason jar. The first year it happened, he came inside, his face flushed with excitement, a single pink bud the size of a fingernail pinned between his dirt-crusted fingers. Look, the azaleas are flowering, he told the both of us. Springtime.
In the summers, but mostly in the spring, in the heat of the day when the wind was heavy and sluggish, we used to go out to my father’s garden and sit on the red hammock and rock back and forth under the shade of the peach tree. He was always very proud of that peach tree, though it was young and had barely flowered; he had planted it three years before my older sister, his first child, left home. He had always been sad that she had not seen it flower or produce a single peach before she left, that she’d been absent when we finally peeled the first small peach and let its juice drip down our chins victoriously. My father dug out the garden, planned where the raised beds would go, and planted the peach tree with the intention of a pretty, ever-expanding little kingdom, because he wanted a place to watch green things grow, a place of peace and life, a place away from the perpetual motion of the ugly street nearby and the constant changing and leaving that came with having a family.
Because it was so young, the peach tree barely put out any shade, and only covered about half of the red, threadbare hammock, and that was the half we always fought over. When we brought more friends we made them sit in the branches or lean against the rough bark or on the splintery edges of the wooden raised beds, instead of making space for them on our hammock; it was the way the garden was run, how our friendships flowered, and no one minded, not even those who got splinters or fell out of the tree branches. In the spring, when the cherry tomatoes began to green and the peach tree to draw itself up in readiness, we would go out there and swing back and forth in the hammock, reciting poetry or trying to shush the other so we could write a line of our own. It was always such a pleasure to write our own lines; there was something in the wind and in the ripple of the lush leaves above us, in the words of the books lying on the dirt beneath our swinging bodies, and it filled us up; we had the world at our fingertips, the sun itself and the earth it shone upon was all ours.
My father grew many things in his garden, as well as the peach tree and cherry tomatoes. Weeks before my mother died he dug a pond for goldfish, so my youngest sister could toddle out in the backyard and lean against the stones and watch the little gold flickers in the clear, moss-tipped water. He grew also a couple potatoes each year as well as carrots, just so he could tell the stories of growing pains and thieving rabbits and squirrels that came with growing root vegetables. There were always big beds of sunflowers and chocolate mint, some corners of beds devoted to peonies and poppies so we could wear them on Poppy Day, little tendrils of malabar spinach and shallots and basil that grew tall on the trellises originally intended for white roses, and sometimes he planted rosemary, lavender, and azurea when we had a nice warm February that promised a good summer for them. He grew a bed of asparagus fern too, a plant so prickly that you liked to break off pieces when I wasn’t looking and then slip them down my shirt.
We would run out hand in hand on a Wednesday night and the air would be warm and the earth hard and the feathery tendrils of asparagus would move in the night-breeze. With friends over in the long golden hours of warm spring, lush green wind in the peach tree and on the surface of the small fish pond and through the leaves of ferns, ruffling the sunflowers and poppies, we would lean against each other for hours, reading aloud lines that slid together satisfyingly like a daisy chain, someone’s bare foot pushing against the ground to keep the hammock going. It was in the garden that you told me who in the house was angry, who to avoid, who to smile at during dinner; it was the politics of dreaming young girls, the politics of maiden springs and lazy summers long gone by. It was in the garden you whispered to me who you loved and who you hated during the school year, though the summer always wiped the slate clean, a future gift for the approaching autumn. It was in the garden, when we were relaxing in the final retreating days before leaving home forever, where we told each other stories of sex and scandal, falling into each other laughing, wondering when we might be the dazzling protagonists of such stories. I remember perfectly when my mother died and you let me cry in your embrace, there in the garden, and then dried my face with your malabar-stained fingertips.
It seemed that the weather was always fine in the garden, always perfectly warm and breezy, though outside the cracked, curling iron gate the realities of too-dry spring and too-hot summer came crashing down. The pond’s water level never dropped; the tomatoes which we snapped off to nibble on before dinner never drooped or tasted sour; the sunflowers which we wove through our hair and clasped between our hands for a pretend spring wedding never turned pale or leaned over the raised beds because of thirst. We would traipse into the house in the cool evening with dirt and scars embedded in our knees, peach-wood splinters and tomato juice staining our hands, laughter and sunflower pollen speckled in our hair, and sun and youth and happiness flushed in our faces. The secrets we told in that humble, perfect garden, like the magic of the poems recited and written, were never allowed outside out of the curling gate or past the vigilant watch of the peach tree and outstretched asparagus ferns. To allow them out would be to ruin the magic of it all, the delectable draw of no one else knowing or being allowed to enter our precious kingdom of growing green things. We never left if we could help it; if my father had let us sleep out there we would have. Leaving meant dying, leaving meant growing up and abandoning paradise for a trek to forge our own paradise. There was always a chance that making our own way would never turn out as beautifully as our garden did, as our friendship did.
But as spring ripens and turns to summer, so girls must grow up and leave. The garden was full of living things that turned inevitably to dying things. We forgot that we were living too. As the little goldfish rippled beside us in the water, and the peach tree moved in some silent song above us, and you rocked the hammock with your tough, bare foot on the damp earth, whispering lines long written and dead yet forever alive, we confided secret silent things, laughing secret silent laughs, writing secret silent words, and slowly, silently, reluctantly, we grew up.