On a strip of land between an alley and the creek, I discover the ghost garden. To the north, a long dull row of industrial buildings hides the community gardens from the street. I stop the car, get out, walk to the edge, and stare. Each garden is plotted to city specs, no more than fifteen by twenty feet. It’s October, the harvest is nearly done, but the gardeners have left behind bits and pieces of their spirits like shoe prints in soil and I can see them, dim impressions of the gardeners, now gone, lost to small homes and landless apartments. I can hear their stories.
I blink and the shimmering impressions grow solid. On my left is a plot filled with raspberry bushes, the remaining berries as white as fingertips. Beside the taller bushes, the rusty strawberry plants spread their offspring for next year. I see an Indian woman with a three-year old, boy, dark dandelion-hair flying, a plastic cup clutched in his hands. She coaches him, tells him to pick the berries gentle-like so as not to crush them. The boy’s upper lip is tinged red like a berry, red like blood. He licks his upper lip.
Beyond the raspberries, one plot is littered with tomatoes left behind by a gardener judging them too poor to pick. I see the serene impression of a woman with white hair and thin fingers as she gently places the tomatoes in a bucket to carry across town to the black enamel canner sitting on her stovetop. Beside the canner is the long-awaited letter from a daughter she hasn’t seen for ten years. She waits to read it until the hot jars are stacked in the pantry, away from all light and heat.
I lift my chin and look across the strip of garden plots stretching two blocks to the east, all of them worked by vapor and shadow, ghosts caught in the glow of the lowering sun. To my right, a row of pink and white gladiolas belong to the short man who cuts the blooms to place beside the grave of his wife, dead now these twenty years. He still misses her.
Beyond the bright gladiolas, red geraniums defy frosty nights and raise their heads to greet the girls, three sisters, who come to dance among the blooms and dream of the day they will be sixteen and kissed by a handsome boy. The little one fears no boy will want to kiss her crooked lip.
Beyond, beneath aggressive yellow mums, a single large pumpkin waits for the lad to come and carve a face. He will scratch and carve and set the pumpkin on the balcony of his mother’s apartment. The boy wonders who his father is? Mother will never tell so he carves scary faces on pumpkins, and in his dreams, because he cannot see the truth of it.
Further down, someone has built a crude arbor out of thin poles and bright orange construction netting. The arbor is hung with gourds; dipper gourds with long thin necks, pale white egghead gourds, and one variety with a curved, feminine shape. I walk a path of plank and old carpet, see a gate hung on one side only, unattached on the other and I wonder who has entered and who has left through such a gate. The arbor chills me. I approach the shadowy tunnel of leaves, tips curling and browning, and the gourds swinging slightly and see the young man who has brought offerings to honor the dead. There has been so many he has lost count. He stretches, touches the gourd whose surface is veined and wrinkled, sees his grandfather’s face. The young man weeps in the arbor, thinks perhaps he will join the ones gone on.
The garden is full of ghosts. I’m pulled out of autumn and into midsummer, the gardens alive with activity, filled with the people whose stories are sad and glad, grown like the small gardens out of the soil of life.
An elderly man holds his right knee stiff, a long ago war wound that never healed. He likes the aching reminder, lest he forget that war, and what he did there. His shirt is not clean and his face not is smooth and his eyes are not clear. His bit of garden is nearest the creek and he grows green beans, radishes, and a row or two of quick-crop greens that need no cooking. A mile down the creek, under a bridge, is a gray wool blanket, a red director’s chair, and a book called Acres of Diamonds. The old man lives there but comes each day to work the soil. Once a week he bathes in the creek with a slip of green Irish Spring, all privacy of body and soul lost and won inside his own being.
The garden is a common garden for those who need homegrown to feed both body and soul, who come to bend and bow, and bow and bend, to pick and plant and place their prayers beside roots so thinly planted that a heavy rain or a chunk of hail could destroy them in an instant.
It touches me, this garden, it touches me deep. To see, beneath the concrete world with its fast food and fast lanes, that there are those who find solace in a plot of bare land, a single green bean, or a stalk of corn, these farmers of spirit and soil and soul who cannot forget, not for a minute.
A battered sign nailed to a post says, “Private Gardens–Do not Enter.”
Next summer I will plant my cucumbers in the common garden and leave my imprint among the ghosts. I will give a new slip of soap to the old man, hold the old woman’s hand when the letter says I cannot see you again dear mother. Yes, I will fill my jars with finger-sized cukes, stuff the top with fragrant dill and, at summer’s end, will trade a jar of dillys for a bowl of fresh, red raspberries.
I had posted this a few years ago, but it seemed like the right time again. I love this view into the garden at summer’s end. My garden is now put to bed, awaiting its next season. Have joy in this season. Be sure to pass on to those who may like this post. And sign up to get my weekly post below.