My mother loved her garden. The family home in Hampshire morphed from an awful clay pit with a few decrepit fruit trees into a beautiful oasis. My parents put extraordinary effort into the conversion. Fortunately their skills were complimentary: mum designed – she had the eye, the sense of scale and colour; dad the passion – he believed in the inevitability of the ultimate success and celebrated each small and large step with gusto. Indeed little happened of a positive hue without a tipple being imbibed. ‘Imbibing’ was more than a pleasant adjunct to success; it was at the centre.
When mum left Silver Crest after 36 years, it was the leaving of the garden that took the most decoupling. Happily the new bungalow had a garden though immediately I foresaw a problem. Mum was 80. She’d had a hip and knee replaced. She had shared her joints with arthritis for years. It would be customary to say she ‘battled’ these ailments but mum didn’t really battle anything. She assessed her enemy and her wider resources and determined how to maximise her enjoyment of life with the minimum of personal engagement with the troubling parts.
An example: dad’s cancer made it difficult for him to walk far in the early day of his treatment. He was a walker and this was a major issue for him. When the Archaeologist and I took them to the Eden project for what was likely to be our last holiday together as a foursome, I pre-booked wheelchairs for them both. Dad loathed the idea, bemoaning the loss of dignity, the inevitability he would be treated differently, the embarrassment. Mum only saw an opportunity to see more, for longer and in more comfort. We, the pack horses, were to regret mum’s patent enthusiasm for being pushed – the Eden project is bloody hilly. Eventually dad saw what mum had anticipated and embraced the experience – even exhorting me to ‘go faster, boy, they’re getting away’.
So, the new garden. It was largely lawn with a small bed to one side, a line of shrubs two thirds the way towards the back and a working area behind. Even on the day we moved her in, when I was still, forlornly, trying to negotiate some reduction on the stuff we were squeezing onto her new home, she was outside, casting a beady eye over her new empire.
‘We need to change that bed.’
‘We?’ Of course I knew. And she knew I knew.
‘First you might tidy up the back, just to give me some space.’ She gave me what might be described as an enigmatic look, but only if you’ve not lived with it for some forty years. It’s a look that is waiting for the rubber stamp of acceptance, a look that says ‘you can say ‘no’, of course you can, but, really is that what you want, is that wise?‘ The tilt of the head, the glint of the glasses, the slow dawning of a smile and then, ‘I’ll make you some scones; I’ve some of the lemon curd saved somewhere.’
Frankly it was too big for her.
Sadly, I couldn’t do as much for her as I wanted so we found a gardener; a wonderfully dynamic, energetic dash of a woman call Kath who ran super marathons and brought the same fizz and endurance to her gardening. But I was still on the books as a sub-under-deputy gardener.
‘We need some trees.’ The boundary to the left was a newish three foot fence, which mum thought a waste of a boundary. Even at 82, as she was by now, she had a vision for the future. None of the ‘I’ll not be here long’ attitude with her. We visited Everton Nurseries together, me by now having hired on a long term basis a wheelchair to allow her to extend her trips out when I was involved. She choose four trees, none of which would grow more than a couple of feet in a year and I axed some holes in the concreted clay and flint (finding out for myself why nothing had been planted on that fence line) and planted the buggers. They’d barely moved on by the time she died 3 years later but she watered them religiously and stroked the new leaves that did appear with a tenderness she normally reserved for her grandchildren.
I can see her now, hefting a half full watering can to the first of those trees, before carefully emptying the contents around the base. She struggled to carry a full can and, of course, I offered. We both knew she didn’t want my help. She knew how she wanted to water her trees and she didn’t need my uncultured enthusiasm taking hold. It might take her three, four times as long as it would me and I would probably get it more right than wrong, but why take the chance? My mother never eschewed hard work, far from it. She never gave into pain, never let it dictate to her or define her. But she saved her energies for where they were best needed. She understood the art of delegation, the masculine need to provide and protect and turned it to her and (let me be the first to admit) t0 our, we humble males, advantage.
One afternoon, shortly before the tree project the neighbour of the land at the end of the garden caught me. ‘Hello, are you the son?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Good. I spoke to your mother. I’m not sure she understood me.’
I knew that, wherever this conversation was going to go, it wasn’t likely to end well for the neighbour. He continued. ‘I want to buy your garden. From here.’ He indicated a line about halfway down. ‘I’ll pay a fair price; I’m going to develop my plot and if I can get your garden I can get two, maybe three bungalows on it.’
It is perhaps difficult to paint a picture of how this might have worked but it had, to me, many upsides. Money, to start with. A reduction in what was, frankly, a too big garden which even mum recognised. A new fence and hedge at this man’s cost. On the downside, mum would lose the line of mature shrubs two thirds down. And she would be dealing, albeit through me, with this man. ‘I’ll talk to my mother.’
‘Please. If you can explain how much mutual benefit there will be…’ He sounded a little desperate.
Mum watched me, during this conversation. I joined her for tea. ‘So what did he offer?’
‘He started at £40,000.’
‘Him or me?’
She twinkled. ‘You if you thought I’d sell.’
‘You’d lose the shrubs.’
‘True.’ This said in a tone that evoked the wobbly hand gesture beloved of those suggesting you are close but not quite there.
‘You’ll be more overlooked.’
I hadn’t nailed it yet. ‘He said you probably didn’t understand and could I explain.’
She nodded. That was the clincher. Mum would put up with a lot but a patronising man was not one of them.
‘Make sure he understands. I’ll make some toast.’