Growing up, my house was always a menagerie of cacti, orchids, African violets, bamboo palms, rubber plants, potted azaleas, devil’s ivy, and whatever else my mother decided to pick up at the local greenhouse. Every spring, she heaved heavy bags of mulch and topsoil into the yard to lay the foundation for a vegetable garden. Her dedication was rewarded with a summer bounty of hot peppers, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, and radish.
As a child, I ran wild trapping bumblebees to keep as pets (complete with tiny harnesses made of string), luring squirrels into the house with trails of peanuts, bringing home crayfish in styrofoam cups, and attempting to hatch store-bought chicken eggs.
During my teenage years, Mom and I fought about everything – clothes, boys, grades, going out. Dad and Nancie stayed out of the fray as we slammed doors and roared at each other from different parts of the house – two people who were simultaneously so different and so alike, it must’ve seemed like an absurd dance to anyone on the outside looking in.
Mom tended to her garden through it all – weeding, mulching, watering, composting, and turning over each leaf to check for blights and parasites. The most challenging vegetable to grow was loofah, an Asian plant that requires particular care in Montreal’s northern climes. Incidentally, sigua – the Chinese name for loofah – is a much-hated childhood pet name.
My mom used to coax the seedlings from pots indoors when there was still snow on the ground, gently transplanting them at the foot of our porch in spring. Young plants were always in danger of being overrun by weeds, drowned by the rain, damaged by birds or slugs, or killed by a late frost, but she kept a watchful eye on them.
They soon grew tall and strong, climbing over the trellis and around the porch in a thick tangle of vines. Large yellow flowers bloomed at the height of summer and were replaced by small green buds. By August, the first crop of plump, elongated gourds was ready for harvesting.
When I moved out in university, that’s the image I retained of my mother: hunched over a flower bed with pruning shears in hand, wearing a brown wide-brimmed hat and the beat-up Adidas shelltoes I begged her to buy me in high school and promptly outgrew.
Towards the end of my second year in Beijing, I found myself needing my mother’s presence but couldn’t find the words to tell her. She somehow knew.
“I don’t care about the why of anything, I just care that you’re OK,” she wrote. That was the first time she expressed in writing what I already knew from the years of tacit apologies we willed to each other after every fight.
I’ve come to associate my mother with spring, when she dusts off the gardening tools and makes the annual pilgrimage to the local home hardware store to inspect new plants. As I write the last sentences in this editor’s note, I realize that it’s her birthday.
Here’s another weird coincidence: My mom’s first name is Chun (春), which means “spring.”
Photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p9 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com