It snowed something fierce on the night we closed on our home. My mind, distracted by the weather, quickly leapt from talk of escrow to the fact that we did not own a shovel. I also thought of the future, when our sons, then all under 5, would set up homes of their own and leave us behind with echoes of their childhood in these halls.
In that moment, however, the house — a decrepit fixer-upper with termites, radon and a deceased furnace — remained a ghost of its past. It looked misleadingly splendid in the glow of the street lamps, its external blights hidden beneath the snow.
My husband, who had faith that our family would blossom here, reminded me that we’d finally have what we’d longed for all those years in an apartment: a garden, our own sukkah, a yard. I knew we could redeem the interior, yet did not believe we could coax anything lovely out of this despondent bit of land.
While doubt continued to gnaw at me, gardening books gave me hope just as the spring thaw launched its opening salvo of weeds. But days of uprooting daunting swaths of shoulder-height overgrowth, like a magician pulling knotted scarves from a hat, felled my tenuous ambition. I simply walked away.
Summers later, a visit with my husband’s family on Croatia’s Istrian coast rekindled my longing to grow something. Our rental house was nestled in an olive grove divided by rows of grapes. Pomegranate, fig, and almond trees dotted the outlying fields. Italian kiwi climbed elegantly over a pergola and rosemary perfumed the air. I asked, “Can you believe that God made all of this?” repeatedly throughout the day.
It was late August, two weeks before Rosh HaShanah. I daydreamed that we lived there year-round, that I could step outside to pluck a pomegranate for our holiday table. I envisioned draping our sukkah with grape vines and placing dried lavender inside our spice box at Shabbos’ end.
Alas, the experts back home declared a biblically inspired garden beyond our grasp, given the hungry deer and New Jersey’s lack of a Mediterranean climate. So the yard and I reached detente. Before each first frost, I offered to embed a few hardy perennials, taking care not to let my disappointment stunt their growth. In turn, our modest garden agreed to bloom every spring.
One autumn, after replacing the wilted aravos in his lulav several times over Sukkot, my eldest announced that he wanted to grow a willow. He stabbed a brittle branch deep into the ground, only to watch it cave beneath the weight of an early snow. The following year, a four-gallon plant from the arboretum met the same end. This year, he altered his approach with strengthened resolve after the holiday, placing three dried branches into a pot of soil beneath the kitchen window.
Though he made clear that he was sole proprietor, he outsourced the willow’s care to me, often questioning whether I was “maintaining river-like conditions.” But there was no need for him to worry. I watered the branches religiously, pleading with them to show signs of life, praying they’d grow strong and righteous. The teenager and I were collaborating for the first time in ages. I needed this to work.
And finally, it did. One of the stems launched a single green leaf. My son barreled through the door that evening to see it for himself. He trilled with glee, “I grew aravos!” before modifying his “I” to “we,” and then, finally, changing the thought entirely to “I love God!”
The morning after the recent winter storm, I gazed out the kitchen window onto our snow-blanketed yard, recalling the night of the closing a decade ago. The house, home to three shovels, has since become splendid to me, mostly because of the blessings it has granted us.
I took stock of the willow, which now boasts two full leafy stems. It was then that I noticed a tiny bit of green emerging from the third withered branch, the one we’d long ago given up hope on. We had superstitiously left it there, reasoning that its removal might upset the botanical balance.
My son and I discussed the willow’s future. Twice shy from earlier efforts, he suggested that when the time comes, we first transfer it to a larger planter in the kitchen, where there’s plenty of light. In a year or so, he ventured, it should be strong enough to make a go of it on its own in the garden.
He, of course, was talking about the willow. I, meanwhile, teetered on the edge of metaphor. Our willow is surely not the magnificent etrog tree in the biblical garden of my dreams. It’s better.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer in Edison, N.J., where she lives with her family. She blogs at mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and is at work on a memoir about raising boys.