Our mother loved summer in Chicago. More specifically, she loved sunshine and gardening, and that only happened during summers in Chicago, if then.
“I didn’t like plants until I was pregnant with you,” she said, slipping off her wedding ring and placing it on the ledge of our birdbath so it wouldn’t get caked in mud.
She also told me she never thought she’d have kids when she was younger. Thought the world was too horrible a place to bring more lives into it. “But then I had you and all I wanted to do was help life grow up sweet.” She wrinkled up her nose and pinched my cheek, leaving a smudge of dirt behind.
She had special “plant babies” she’d keep in pots and bring inside when she sensed the slightest hint of frost.
She also never wore shoes in summer. Winter was slipper weather, but that’s another story. If Mom could help it, she was barefoot, something my father constantly yelled at us kids about. “We live in the city. There’s glass all over the place. And who knows what else.” My mom didn’t seem to hear him. Just as she didn’t see his visible irritation every time we licked our fingers after eating melted chocolate. Another thing my mom did. I liked to think about all the things my mom did with her hands.
She used to be an artist. In graduate school, she drew these huge, detailed self-portraits with graphite on oilpaper. I never understood how an empty room with writing all over the walls was meant to represent her, but she framed it and put her room of walls up on our wall, pleased with it. Though, she never failed to point out how the perspective was a little off in one corner.
She doesn’t draw anymore.
Mom slept a lot. She was always complaining about it too, that she couldn’t find enough energy to enjoy life. As soon as she woke up, she felt tired.
One summer, Mom tore apart our dated kitchen and got to painting our cupboards white. “The house is too dark,” she’d say. It was the year she tried making everything pretty.
My dad explained that it had something to do with having babies. That moms got sad after having them sometimes.
It took Mom the whole summer, and in the end, the kitchen looked fantastic. Even Dad said it brightened up the whole house, and he seemed sincerely impressed by her. So Mom painted the walls around the cupboards too, “Clear Sky” blue. And then she painted the living room “Honey White” to match. For weeks after, she’d stand and stare at her hard work feeling pleased and happy and accomplished. She didn’t take a nap that whole month.
“Mom needs some alone time,” my Dad explained to us. He started taking us on Saturday morning excursions. Usually, we hit up a new park. In the winter, he found us a gym with a climbing wall that allowed walk-ins. My younger brother became a climbing prodigy.
Sometimes my mom would sleep the whole time we were away, but there were other times she’d sit in the back yard and pull weeds and deadhead flowers and otherwise keep up her garden. She told me, “At first, when I didn’t know anything about plants, I sowed the seeds all willy-nilly. Thought I’d make a cottage garden just by letting it happen. As Nature willed it. Turns out, every little seed has its own needs.”
I was the only seven-year-old boy in Chicago who was sent outside for “pasta sauce herbs,” and came back with the perfect amount of basil, parsley, and oregano, with a few chives for garnish. Not that I would eat anything green.
Mom stopped going to her doctor’s appointments and started talking to her plants more often when we went back to school. She probably slept more too, with us out of the house. I could tell she was trying to be “peppy” when we all came home, though with three boys all under the age of seven, wrestling matches occurred often, and often escalated. One day when we came home from school, she was in the garden and forgot to meet us at the door with her usual hugs and kisses. The next day, she was gone.
Nothing in the house was missing, so Dad didn’t think she planned to leave us. Like, move-out leave us. We were hoping she hadn’t left us permanently. “She loved us too much to kill herself,” Dad told the police. “I know how that sounds, but she loved watching our kids grow up. Even when she was sad, she loved us.” He hadn’t meant for me to hear that.
Dad believed Mom was kidnapped. “It’s the only explanation,” he told the police three or four or five million times, a bit frantic. He kept looking for clues inside the house, but everything was where it should be. Plus, while Mom was a great cleaning lady, both she and Dad loved their knick-knacks. It’d be hard to tell if something was out of place, because there were a lot of somethings in our place.
I watered the garden while we searched for Mom. When she came back, I figured, she’d want to see her plant babies had been taken care of. I thought she’d come back for her plants. I thought, “How could she abandon her plants?”
In early October, the garden needed to prepare for winter. I had done a minimal amount of weeding. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But now there were plants to cut back, plants to transfer inside, plants that needed to “winter-over,” as my mom called it when she did her final planting of the year.
It was a Sunday when I went to work in Mom’s garden. Sunday Funday, we used to call it. Mom usually felt refreshed after her day off. An hour into weeding, I found her wedding ring. It was placed on the ledge of her birdbath.
Dad was sure it was a sign she had been kidnapped. Mom only took her ring off to garden, and only put it right there, on the birdbath. She never forgot it. She wouldn’t have left it.
In all my time spent watering Mom’s garden, I had failed to notice her ring. For close to three weeks, I hadn’t seen it sitting there. Dad hadn’t seen it. The police hadn’t seen it. My brothers hadn’t seen it. When Dad finally let me back in the garden, I said I was weeding, but really I was digging for my mom.
It wasn’t until the summer I turned eleven that I found another clue. I planted birdhouse gourds along the back trellis of my mom’s garden. She had done this for us once, before she got lost. She grew three gourds, one for each of us. We put them in our dark basement to dry out over the winter, pulling out the seeds the next spring and painting the gourds bright yellow and blue and green. They were meant to be homes for birds, and we enticed the birds to come and find them by spilling seeds inside the gourd houses. Only, squirrels found the gourds first and ripped them open for the seeds. This time, I’d make sure the squirrels kept their distance.
The longer my mom was gone, the less angry my dad became, though we had to tread carefully around him. He wasn’t the kind of guy to let grudges go, and he desperately wanted someone to blame for taking away my mom. He really loved my mom. When I found the bit of fabric woven into the vines of my birdhouse gourds, I was afraid to tell him. Not because he would blame me, not because he wouldn’t believe me, but because I knew he would be angry, and beneath all that anger was a very sad man.
The vines had grown more than halfway up my mom’s trellis, with large, dark green leaves protecting yellow bursts of flowers that would soon turn into fruit. The fabric—pink strings woven together with the same pink-colored string, making bumpy flowers on top—was threaded through the only place on the vine where there were no leaves, nothing to block the fabric from being found. As though someone wanted the fabric to be found.
Of course, all the questions a son would ask wracked my brain. And my father looked desperately for answers, calling back the police. And my brothers cried. We all cried. And nothing changed. There were no answers to any of our questions.
We grew up. My brothers went to college. I did too, but not far from home. I wanted to keep my mother’s garden going. I stopped telling my family when I found something new. After all, each new piece of fabric or ornament or shell I found could have been there in the dirt all this time, waiting to be uncovered. It wasn’t worth upsetting anyone anymore. The police were tired of returning to our home to search for a mother who wouldn’t be returning.
I stayed. I liked the idea of my mother watching me, leaving hints of herself for me to discover, even if it was all in my head. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe it was enough to keep the garden growing. To watch the little plant babies grow up, bloom, and fruit. In that way, I was like her. My mother’s love of gardening began when I was conceived, and I would keep her memory alive.