Though the majority of my life has been spent living out in the country, when the boys were just babies we briefly lived in town. As much as I treasure the solitude of country life there were aspects of city living that delighted me. I still remember cooking up a pot of chili for supper, realizing I didn’t have any peppers and the thrill of simply shutting off the stove, loading the boys into their tandem stroller and trundling off to the grocery store. I returned a few minutes later with my small purchase feeling almost giddy with the novelty of it all.
In the country I only went grocery shopping once every 10 days or so. If I forgot an item or we ran out of something, we simply did without until the next ‘grocery day’. There was no thought of wasting an entire afternoon and all that fuel for the sake of a couple peppers. A convenience store isn’t convenient when it’s over 20 miles away!
The other thing I enjoyed was snooping in neighbour’s yards. That makes me sound like a peeping Pam or something and, I suppose, that’s exactly what I was. But with one notable exception, it wasn’t the people I was trying to get a peek at, it was the plants. Even back then gardening fascinated me. Every afternoon during spring, summer and fall I would load the kids into their tandem stroller and we would cruise the neighbourhood looking for gardens. If we passed a house with evidence of flower beds in the front we would bump our way down the back alley so I could catch a glimpse of their backyard which, I quickly learned, was where the real beauty was usually held.
The only person I tried to spy on was a little old lady that lived two blocks away and even that was garden related. Her house was completely surrounded by magnificent, mature, trees. Not knowing anything about trees at the time I could only tell they weren’t poplar or spruce. In the spring I would catch glimpses of her in green rubber boots, a house dress and a pair of pruners flitting between the branches. By early summer her yard was awash in fragrance and bloom. During July and August the leaves were so thick and dense you couldn’t even make out the house, but every once in awhile I would spot a pair of green boots or a white head slowly bobbing along. Her back yard was fenced with tall planks that completely obscured any view, but it seemed to me there weren’t as many tree tops in the back as there were on the sides and front. That meant . . . a garden! A secret garden.
If Mary Lennox had not been a fictional character and if she had moved to Canada and if she had grown old, she could have been that neighbour. I imagined how one afternoon I would catch my ‘Mary’ on the fringe of her property, how our eyes would meet and I would tell her how much I admired her trees. She would clasp my hands warmly in her own and ask if I would like to have tea in her back garden. We would become the best of friends and she would divulge all kinds of tips; both about life and gardening. And the secret garden? It would be spectacular.
That fall I finally got my chance. I was wheeling the boys past her property and there she was raking leaves off the sidewalk! I slowed down, she looked up, our eyes met and I smiled. She smiled back. And I kept walking. I couldn’t believe it. I had finally got my chance and I had blown it. I circled the block, cursing my shy gene the entire way. Next time I would tell her how much I admired her trees. Next time I wouldn’t lose my nerve. There never was a next time. Winter came and the following spring we moved.
Last summer I was early for a meeting and thinking to kill some time I drove down our old street past my Mary’s place. I felt as if I had been sucker punched. There stood her house like a wild, startled, thing in the blinding sun. The trees, the shrubs, the fence; all of it had been razed to the ground. If there ever had been a secret garden in the back there was no evidence of it now. Maybe the roots were getting into the plumbing. Maybe the new owners simply wanted to let in some sun. Maybe some things are better left to memories and imagination.
Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns or check out her garden blog by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com