by Lynn Bechtel
From my back porch, I see a bank of rhododendrons that have soaked up sun and grown almost as tall as the house. Above the rhododendrons, there’s a strip of blue sky, seen as though looking through a clerestory window. It’s a glorious day.
I just wandered down the driveway to pick up the mail, moving slowly so I could view what’s left in the garden on this fall day: Siberian iris foliage waiting to be cut back; blackberry lilies gone to seed; a few lingering roses; one last bloom on the Stella d’Oro daylily.
I’m itching to work in the yard and gardens—to mow the lawn and chop up leaves for mulch, to cut back dying foliage, lift and divide overgrown hostas, do a final weeding of garden beds before putting winter mulch in place. But my body says, “maybe not.” Like all the women on my mother’s side of the family, I have wear and tear arthritis in my knees and hips. Last year I tended a hip through its decline and eventual replacement; this past summer both knees were replaced and are still healing.
Aging. Recently as I was checking out my groceries, I asked for the senior discount. A woman behind me in line said, “You must be doing something right.” When I looked puzzled, she said, “You don’t look old enough for a senior discount.”
I was both flattered and bothered by this exchange. This is the story we’re told about aging—that it’s something to fight, that the ultimate compliment is “You look so young!” Implicit in that is the deep belief that the story of aging is solely one of loss, vulnerability, diminishment. As I move through my sixties, my aching joints whisper that story and it’s hard to hear, especially with the garden beckoning.
Over the years, I’ve punctuated my suburban yard with perennial beds. I’ve never been athletic so it surprised me how much I enjoyed the physical labor of gardening. And that physicality shaped my relationship with the garden. I knew what the earth felt like because I plunged my hands into the soil repeatedly to weed and plant, I knew the strength of rootedness from the tug of roots holding onto the soil when I pulled up weeds. I knew the crick in my back after an hour bent over weeding, the spot in my arch that hit the edge of the spade as I edged or turned earth, the judder through my shoulders as I maneuvered the tiller through a new garden bed.
The garden was part of me and I was part of it. I carried its dirt into the house caked under my nails, ground into my cuticles, staining my jeans and the calluses on my hands. And the garden bore my mark in the freshly turned earth, the tamped down soil around a newly planted shrub or perennial, the curve of a newly dug bed, the waves of color as plants bloomed and faded and bloomed.
Over the last few years, I’ve recognized that something needs to shift. I’ve ceded much of the labor of the garden to a helper who does the edging and mulching, the planting and transplanting. And I’m planning ways to make the garden more easily tended—more shrubs and ground cover, raised beds, planters filled with bright annuals. I approach this partly as an interesting design problem and I’m excited by the possibilities.
I’m also sad. These beds hold memories. Last summer we took out most of a border at the back of the yard. But I couldn’t bring myself to toss the plants from that bed. Would the bright pink phlox go onto the compost pile? The crocosmia with its scarlet flame of bloom? The nepeta that my old cat used to nibble on until she got too old to wander that far? The result is a strip of newly planted grass at the back and redesigned beds in other parts of the yard, enlarged to accommodate these favorite plants.
The garden repeatedly offers lessons in resilience, in attachment and letting go, in bending to the present moment, adapting—some plants thrive with minimal care; some reseed themselves in unexpected places; some succumb to disease, insects, drought. Maybe this is the story we need to tell about aging—that it’s simply a story about finding our way through change.
I talk with friends about growing older. We laugh together about sagging breasts and jawlines. We grumble about our myriad aches and greet these changes with varying degrees of grace. We’re all used to being active and do what we can to stay that way. A few of us are coping with serious health issues that require significant accommodations—and that may be the future for many of us. But for most of us, for right now, it’s a recognition that we are walkers rather than runners, that we pedal on the level bike path rather than the hilly route, forego the headstands or knee stressing poses in yoga, step away from the heavy gardening.
Each day I wander through the garden. Instead of making notes about things that need tending I simply notice the shapes, textures, colors, sounds—trees with crimson leaves, sedums showing their burnished bronze heads, nasturtiums that haven’t yet succumbed to frost, grass littered with leaves that crackle under my feet. Without the deep physical involvement in the garden, I feel less ownership of the space. But I never really “owned” it, I’ve only been its steward. And this shifting relationship to the garden helps me recognize the gifts in aging, nudges me to take pleasure in slowing down, stepping back, accepting life as it is, right now.
About the photographer: Fabrice B. Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and dozens of other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, The San Pedro River Review and more than 250 other publications. This photo is titled “Seeking a Friend.”