On a red wheelbarrow | Mary Pezzulo


I woke up anxious again – the hard, solid, agonizing bezoar of fear and apprehension in the pit of my stomach. The feeling that a SWAT team was going to kick down the door, or that a tornado was going to tear down the house, or that my husband and daughter were going to die – that level of emergency, for nothing at all.

I heard my violent next door neighbor let out his German Shepherd on his squeaky chain, start his weedkiller for the weekly mowing. Saturday morning is her day to tend to her lawn, mowing back and forth until the grass is short like moss and almost dead, constantly grumbling about us and how good we are disgusting. One of the reasons it has harassed and tormented us for seven years now is because we let the dandelions bloom before we mow. The neighbor doesn’t believe in letting things go.

The lump in my stomach swelled, as always to the sound of my neighbor, like a balloon slowly filling with cement.

I went downstairs and forced coffee down my throat. I haven’t felt like eating normally for days; there is no room in my belly. My stomach is where anxiety lives, and anxiety doesn’t want roommates.

I went to my computer and opened Facebook, where I saw that it was community work day for LaBelle’s new garden. I had wanted to participate. I needed to participate. Gardening is my obsession, but the threatening neighbor does not tolerate my gardening. She barely lets me walk in my garden. I wanted to go to the community garden, but anxiety didn’t want to go. Anxiety didn’t want me to leave the house. Anxiety threw a tantrum and swelled to about the size of a bowling ball, in protest.

I walked cautiously past the community garden, thinking the police were going to drag me to jail for a surprise offense at any moment. I checked that I was in the right place, like I was going to accidentally start gardening on another vacant lot and get shot for trespassing. There was a big pile of chocolate brown compost out front, and the door was open. But no one was working on the mound and there were no tools in sight.

I had a shovel at home, but I had nothing else to help me move the dirt.

I drove to Rural King. I chose a red wheelbarrow, not for poetic reasons but because the red ones were the smallest and could probably fit in the back seat of my car. I also got planters and gravel for the bottom of the planters, to help with drainage. The employee put my bag of gravel in my wheelbarrow, where it immediately burst open with the rat-a-tat of a thousand snare drums, raising the anxiety to the size of a watermelon. In my terror, I thought he would yell at me, but all he did was get me a new bag of gravel.

The gravel went into the trunk with the planters. The wheelbarrow was turned on its cattywampus side, where it fit exactly into my back seat. I returned to the community garden, where I found two other people working with their own dull green wheelbarrow, moving dirt in the raised beds.

I expected them to yell at me and order me to leave, but they didn’t. They introduced themselves. The gentleman was the new pastor of a nearby church and the lady was his wife. We worked together, turning the wheelbarrows around so there was always one to fill and one to dump in the raised beds; all I had to do was shovel, while the gentleman pushed the wheelbarrows back and forth. We discussed weeding and composting, and how we would use the large empty space that had no raised beds. The lady saw that the previous owners of this vegetable garden had not got rid of the asparagus bed and that the asparagus was growing beautifully where they had weeded it.

Two other people arrived in a van. They started pulling weeds and vines around the chain link fence. We discussed the possibility of planting something useful or beautiful on the fence – a strawberry tower, perhaps, or climbing roses. Then a neighbor and her toddler son ran to see what was happening on the vacant lot. We talked about the community garden.

“What will you do with what you grow? ” she asked.

“Well,” said one of the gardeners, “You can bring it to your family, or if you have more, we’ll put it on a table for the community to take away. Free fruit without the exorbitant prices from Kroger.

The neighbor looked excited and said she would come and pitch one of the raised beds for herself later.

I staked out my own raised bed, along with the planters and bag of gravel from my trunk. Then I weeded the bottom of the other raised beds so that they were perfectly clear to be filled with soil from the wheelbarrows. And while I was working, I was talking. We have all spoken. We talked about where to put the benches and flowering trees, what to do with the grant money the garden organizer had gotten. We talked about compost hoppers and rain barrels. We talked about how some of LaBelle’s kids had never been to a bonfire or harvested fresh food before. I mentioned the time when the neighborhood kids didn’t want peas from my garden, because they had been warned that all plants growing out of the ground were poisonous and shouldn’t be touched. The lady who organized the garden said it was such a shame.

I told them I was going to plant a native Three Sisters plot this year, heirloom corn with heirloom pole beans and heirloom squash. I’m also going to plant the fourth sister, the huge Hopi Black Dye sunflowers, which native farmers used to keep birds away from corn – and tomatoes and potatoes in my little planters next to the raised bed. I joked that I would pitch every raised bed if there were more.

I told them about my beloved grandfather, who had a house on half an acre, with the most magnificent garden you had ever seen. He had an orchard with peaches, cherries and apples, so many fruits that he used to fill the whole trunk of his van with bags to give away when he traveled to West Virginia for family gatherings. He grew an alley of vines all along the back of the garage, and we used to play in there, pretending it was a magical tunnel to transport us to Narnia. He had a large patch of strawberries right by the back door so you could supplement your breakfast with fruit from the garden, just by leaning outside in your pajamas. He grew tomatoes that my grandmother would can in a jar after a jar of homemade pasta sauce. I was such a picky girl, I didn’t like her homemade sauce because it had chunks in it and wasn’t sweet. I wanted the smooth suspension sweet sauce that came from the supermarket.

I didn’t tell them it was my grandfather’s death anniversary. It’s something else that was reminded to me in my Facebook memories today. Seven years ago, after a good day of gardening, he fell down the basement steps. He hit the back of his head and had a stroke; they didn’t expect him to wake up, but he did. He opened his eyes and even said a word or two. I didn’t have a car and couldn’t be with him, but my great-aunt showed him a video of three-year-old Rosie “reading” a story she had memorized, and he smiled. And then he let go. I don’t think he wanted to stay alive in a hospital bed any longer than he could help. He didn’t like to lie down. He couldn’t bear to be helpless. He wanted to be out working in the garden, or he wanted to go home to that other Garden, the one that doesn’t die.

My great aunt texted me that afternoon to tell me he was gone. She said to me “he loved you very much” and I was dizzy to see people talking about him in the past tense.

He could have been the only person in the world who ever loved me for who I was, instead of tolerating me in the hope that I could become someone else.

I have been trying to recreate this beautiful garden ever since.

I guess part of me thinks if I do, I’ll find him in the middle of it all, loving me again, in the present.

I worked on these beds until my arms couldn’t lift another shovel, then I went home.

I texted the founder of the community garden to explain that I had left my red wheelbarrow near the patch in case anyone wanted to use it. We chatted for a while about going back to Rural King and buying plants or decorations. She would like me to accompany her.

I realized that the anxiety had shrunk to the size of a walnut. There was room in my stomach for food. I had a big breakfast at four o’clock in the afternoon.

It all depends on a red wheelbarrow.

It all depends on a garden.

It all depends on moving the earth from one place to another, pulling out weeds and remembering.

I think everything will be fine now.

Image via Pixabay

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