The Task at Hand

Author: Margie Davis '94M.A.

It had been a year of losses.

Deaths, divorce, disease, you name it. Just when I thought I had nothing left to lose, came a letter from the city informing me that it was purchasing my home to make room for a parking lot. I tried to look at it philosophically. The unexpected windfall would pay my tuition to nursing school. Still, it meant leaving my home of 15 years.

The loss was especially devastating since over time I had transformed a bare backyard into a tangle of gardens: herb, flower, vegetable and even what I called my orchard, two heirloom apple trees. Those I expected to be the most sympathetic, my fellow church members, reacted to my complaints with testy impatience: “You got paid, right?”

I found a house, a red cottage on two big lots. Plenty of room for four dogs and three cats and gardening. Plenty of room to expand the orchard.

While I was delivering boxes to the cottage, someone made off with my apple trees. Someone dug up the tulip and daffodil beds, taking every bulb.

Plans for a new garden were buried. I went to school, to the hospital, and home. I stopped praying. Why bother? Nearly everything I valued had been dug out of my life.

In the spring I began my psychiatric rotation. Students couldn’t do much for these patients, we were told. Just try to get them to talk, get them to do the work they were here to do.

The patient assigned to me was a small, sad-eyed woman who frequently sighed deeply. I didn’t feel any more cheerful than she did; we must have looked quite a pair.

As we spoke, a few facts emerged. Married only two years, she was the ugly duckling in a family of high-flying swans. Her stepchildren made fun of her, the mother-in-law criticized her, and her husband urged her to make something of herself. The family, she said, complained at the amount of time she spent in her gardens.


She had five.

She’d cleared the plots herself, connecting the gardens with a series of stone pathways. Some of the stones she’d collected from the surface of the land, others she’d dug up in the process of preparing the plots for planting.

The gardening gave her plenty of time to think about her worthlessness. “I know the problem is in me,” she said but feared what she might find if she looked too deeply. She put her hands over her chest. “There’s something heavy laying here, like a rock. And if you bring up one, then you have to bring up the next one and the next one. I don’t think that’s what my family has in mind. They want me to find something worthwhile to do.”

Out of my own unhappy heart, inspiration struck. I held out a fist, then relaxed it open. “The earth freezes in winter, then thaws in spring, bringing rocks up to the surface. We dig them up and haul them away because we can’t plant our gardens until the rocks are out of the way, right? Every year you think you must have got them all out, but next spring there’s a whole new cartload. It’s part of the natural cycle of life, growth, discovery, death, even.”

I told her about a book I used to read my nephew. A frog plants a garden, then wears himself out trying to get the seeds to come up. He yells, he sings, he reads to them. Nothing doing. The seeds will come up, I’d tell my nephew, in seed time. Not too soon, not too late, but when it’s juuuuuuuust right.

I thought I’d forgotten that story.

My patient warmed to the idea of self-exploration as gardening. When we parted she hugged me long and hard. By the time I returned for my next assignment she had been discharged.

That April day I walked outside with the dogs. It was almost too late to think about a garden, but once the first stones have been brought to the surface and hauled away, once a plot has been cleared, how can you not? There was never a time when I hadn’t had something in the ground. Never a time when I hadn’t had something that marked a place as my own. Never a year when I hadn’t lived in seed time.

Maybe a few herbs, I thought grudgingly. Nothing more, I just wasn’t up to it. I thought of my patient and her five gardens.

Well, now.

Maybe I could do a couple of tomatoes, a pepper or two. Sunflowers would look nice in that corner. Corn. Cukes along the fence, and here, along the pavement, a row of strawberries. Maybe, in time, a couple of apple trees.

My dogs ran around me in big, loopy circles, happy to have me outside at last. Odd I hadn’t noticed before how nice bird feeders would look here in this pine outside my front room. Funny I hadn’t really noticed the pine before.

From the back of the garage I hauled out my wheelbarrow, my shovel, my garden gloves. Then I got down to the work I was here to do.

Margie Davis is a writer living in South Bend.

(January 2005)