Some things deserve a closer look

Mulching my garden with Joe

My brother wasn’t much of a gardener. But he loved that I got an allotment. Then he suddenly fell ill. Gravely ill, as it turned out.

I have never grown vegetables, but I have been planning a veg plot, and after thinking and dreaming for a few months, I decided to grow American things I really love to eat, but can’t get here in Holland. Like winter squashes and good corn on the cob. I had planned on buying heirloom seeds during my annual Thanksgiving trip to Boston. And I’d do all my mulching before I left.

The first weekend of November was the last possible weekend to get mulch from the community heap – a mountain of shredded evergreens and whatever other pruning people like me had loaded into a 5 euro cart.

As I took over a sorely neglected and overgrown garden, I’d already cut down about 20 trees, so I know who was responsible for part of the mound. Now I arranged to get a bunch of it back – to cover the little veg patch my allotment’s previous owner had attempted to create – and extend it as far as possible. I was flying to Florida the next day to see my big brother, Joe, who was ill. Gravely ill, as it turned out.

Willow fence, planted with Joe

Joe wasn’t much of a gardener. In fact, he tended towards destruction. As kids we dug huge holes in the middle of my mom’s lawn. He’s the first person who ever dared me to dig to China. And from Joe, I learned how deep you can push a running hose into the sandy Florida ground. Until it got stuck. He taught me to climb to the very tippy top of the giant live oaks and to stuff fluffy Spanish moss into your shirt to make big bellies. We plucked bright red hibiscus blossoms just for the sweet nectar, pelleted each other with roly-polies, stamped out shortcuts through our neighbor’s prize camellias, built huts, made fires, whittled branches, chewed sourgrass….

These past three years, I’d shared my search for garden allotments with him. And he loved it when, on my birthday, I finally got the garden I wanted. It was going to be a lot of work, and he wanted to see pictures of everything. Especially the excellent Weber grill I found in the trash. We made plans for the little garden house, watched recipes on BBQ U, pretended that he would move here, live in my garden house – or at least spend the night once we got the hot water and solar panels up and running. Which he would help set up.

Then he got really sick, and we spent weeks together in the hospital. “At least you have your garden to look forward to,” he had said from his ICU bed. “I’m going to haunt you!” he joked.

“I’m going to turn you into bone meal and feed you to my plants!” I threatened.

And we laughed at all the things we would do together when he was dead and I was home in my garden with him spooking about like the mischievous cousin of Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Did he think really he was dying? I didn’t, not that day. But just four weeks later he was gone, and suddenly I was home, and weeks of rollercoaster emotions and hospital drama, I didn’t know what to do with myself except go to my garden.

I finished the mulching job I’d started before. Dutch polder clay stuck so heavy my shoes, I could hardly lift them from the bouncy ground – and I thought of me and Joe as kids, playing on mudflats and running on the beach. I dug in concrete tiles to create space for the St John’s Wort bush, and we were digging in mom’s garden again. I built wooden planting bench and Joe was with me, telling me to measure first, make sure it was even, take it easy, I was doing a good job.

That’s how I want to remember my brother. Not like he was in his last month, but like my buddy running around the gardens of our childhood, and keeping me company in my allotment today. And maybe, when I go back for his memorial service, I’ll pinch a bit of his ashes so I can smile as he grows.

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