Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Earthy Mother

One woman's soiled legacy.

By Margaret Renkl

MARCH 9, 1998:  What I like best about spring is dirt-real dirt, actual dirt, the welcome kind that grows flowers and scents the air intoxicatingly with every turned spadeful and every blast of the hose.

Though I'm nobody's Lady Macbeth-maniacally washing, washing, washing-there are other kinds of dirt I can do without. I live with a growing family in a small house, and it is a perpetual struggle to keep things halfway neat in such crowded quarters. I spend all winter dusting furniture, sweeping floors, wiping countertops, scrubbing bathtubs, washing clothes, doing all the tasks I hate but cannot avoid when we're all crammed inside together. Winter forces me to face my family's manic disarray.

But when the weather warms, I abandon my battle against the creeping forces of chaos. The children and I go outside as soon as we wake and don't come in again until someone is hungry, has poop in his pants, or needs to take a nap. When the weather warms, I am ready to enjoy dirt that has settled into its proper place. I am ready to set my family free from the tyranny of indoor order, to get outside and dig a hole.

From childhood on, I have always felt satisfied by the disorderly state of nature, even suburban nature. No scrubbing will clean it; no sweeping will make it smooth underfoot. I walk into the yard and relax, knowing that the natural world rejects any human sense of compulsion. Though lots of people attempt it this time of year, it's foolish to try to whip the outdoors into shape; it won't work, and no one objects to dust bunnies under the lawn chairs anyway.

In winter I want my house to be tidy, a haven, a warm shelter when the elements are hostile and people are cold and crabby. If an orderly home suggests the warmth and security of the womb, then springtime outdoors is surely an escape to our wild, primeval origins. It's true that nothing about my own yard is very primeval, and nothing about my flower bed is any wilder than the half-hearted battle I wage against dandelions. Nevertheless, the soil has a dark, secret life of its own, and the cycle of the garden is as mysterious as the difference between death and life itself.

Whatever I know of the mystery of life and gardens I owe to my mother. My father grew up a street kid in a variety of cities, and he looks on his wife's flower beds as alien territory. But Mom comes from Alabama peanut-farming stock, and dirt is second nature to her. Her summers are a bounty of blooms that she cuts and distributes liberally to friends, to family, to total strangers who pull over in their cars to take in the beauty of her yard. Her falls are filled with mulch, her winters preoccupied with seed catalogues.

On the first warm day of February, my mother begins her private migration out. While it's still too early to set out annuals and tomato plants, Mom peers into the flower beds for signs of last fall's shopping spree in the bulb catalogues. Her annual contribution to the national economy of Belgium is sizable, but bulb planting is something of a haphazard exercise with Mom. In fall she can't entirely predict which hard brown lumps will produce the effect she hopes for, and in spring she can never remember which bulbs she planted where. The result is always a bizarre combination of colors scattered about the yard as wildly as nature itself might have done, and nobody is more surprised or pleased at the result, however odd, than my mother.

The whole family knows what warm weather does to Mom. Trained to be a traditional wife and mother such as even Newt Gingrich would approve, she nevertheless conducts her own feminist rebellion between March and November. No more casseroles for dinner, no more expertly tailored new clothes. Newspapers and magazines and photographs of the grandchildren stack up and up; dust coagulates on the lamp bases; her sewing machine lurks under a pile of unfolded laundry. Whatever her wintertime efforts at traditional conformity, in spring my mother becomes a hippie.

Seeing Mom poke about in the dirt-feeling for roots, plucking imperfect buds, thinning the new-green seedlings-all the while humming pleasantly or exclaiming aloud whenever she discovers the bloom of something that she's entirely forgotten having planted, who could wonder why she loses interest in the cumbersome bodies and demanding lives of the people she feeds the rest of the year? In the larger world, the huge life of the yard, Mom concentrates on smaller things-traveling goldfinches, earthworms in the compost. Her hands tend the tiny force of johnny-jump-ups, creeping phlox, that spray of crocus needles barely breaking ground.

What child could wish for a better role model, a better teacher of curiosity? It's only part of the natural cycle that spring should have a revolutionary effect on me. I grew up in a house that stayed untidy through spring and summer, a home that reveled in dirt and manure for half the year, a neighborhood where every family competed to bring in the first tomato. In my house the worth of a woman's hands was judged not by smooth skin and tapered fingernails, but by calluses and caked dirt ground between the fingers.

Thanks to El Niño, spring has come early to Tennessee this year, and now I'm ready to get started, to move out from the failed attempts I make at ordered quiet in my home and into the larger world I have no hope of controlling. My children scream in joy on the swingset. My husband cheerfully carts load after load of last year's compost out to his vegetable garden. I put my hands in the dirt of my flower bed. Soil clings to my knees and to the heels of my hands. Sweat collects in the crooks of my arms. I feel the trillion-legged roly-poly move slowly down my finger.

I thought of my mother all winter long while I chopped vegetables for soup, studded oranges with cloves for cider, dusted every difficult curve of all four of my rocking chairs. And I think of Mom today, now that the first daffodil has opened. Without our coats, the children and I are headed outside; the birds are singing; the dog is stretched out, oblivious to our busy prattle, on the sun-heated driveway. At least for now it seems that winter is over, and tonight we're eating sandwiches.


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