My Mother's Garden
Kao Kalia Yang
August 4, 2013
The quiet in the car was reflected in the scene out of our window. My mother and I drove around the curve of our street corner, and we both took in the sight of our home. The sycamore trees in the spread of our yard are older than we are. The prairie grass swayed like waves of golden wheat in the early autumn wind. Our brown house looked lonely in the late afternoon sunshine. My mother did not speak. I had no words to offer.
In our driveway, we sat looking at the front door of our house. My mother unbuckled her seatbelt. I turned the car key and the engine settled into quiet.
My mother said, “The corn is ready to be harvested.”
I said, “I want to eat corn.”
She asked, “Do you have a few minutes to go to the garden with me so we can harvest some corn for you to take home?”
I answered, “I have nothing left to do today, Niam.”
We walked out of the car together. We unlocked the closed door and entered the dim coolness of the house. The window shades are drawn. My mother’s potted plants are shadows in the front room. The vines tangled like thick spider webs with no center. The aloe stalks rose thick and strong in their pot. The bright blooms of her Christmas cactuses are all shades of gray, their leaves heavy with their profuse blooms. Their fallen petals sprinkled the cool tiled floor. I wondered if the house plants knew that winter was coming. I stood in the room, muted by the silence in a house I’ve only ever known as loud.
My mother opened the door to the garage. I heard the garage door opening. I followed the sound out of my silence. In the garage, my mother and tuck our feet into old rain boots crusted with dried dirt. My mother chose her Hmong gardening hoe from the few she hung on one side of the garage door on an exposed beam. Its triangular metal surface gleamed on the edge where it had been sharpened. Its round handle fit gently into the curve of my mother’s hands. She picked up a five gallon pail. I pulled her gardening cart behind me, and we made our way to the garden. I heard my soft rattling progress as the wheels of the cart hit the bumps in our uneven lawn. I walked behind her quiet back, bent forward in the last of the day’s sunrays.
The cool wind blew my mother’s old, patterned polyester shirt open. My mother paid no attention to the lonely flap of cloth wings against her heart. As the space between us grew across the green expanse of our yard, I saw how short my mother was and how small and frail she will one day be. She is a soft curve of shoulder, a graying head of curls beneath the wide-brimmed sun hat. At the gate into her garden, my mother paused, turned around, stood waiting for me. Her face was hidden in the shadow of the sun behind her back, the protection of her hat. I knew my mother was looking at me. I knew my walk was lopsided with the cart behind me, the uneven, gently slanting ground underneath me. I allowed my arms to drag the cart behind me, and my head to tilt forward in earnest, hard work. Do I remind her of the little girl I was?—dawdling her way.
My mother and I both worked to open the gate to her garden. My father had decided a traditional metal door would be no good for the garden. Instead of a standard door into the fenced garden, my father had decided to cut a hole into the metal fence at different intervals to create an inconspicuous doorway. In order to lock and unlock the door, a person had to make due with a tightly stretched cord with hooks on either side. My mother does not have the heart to tell my father that his invention is sloppy, that it would be easier to just buy a pre-made door, that her hands lack the ability to stretch or release the cord as necessary. My mother stood by the garden and waited patiently for me to help her unlock our way into the garden. My mother held one end of the cord with both hands while I held the other, and we pull hard against the cord to release the hooks from the fence.
We were standing in a memory, my mother and I: the cool air blew and the leaves of the drying tomato and long bean plants rustled as they moved to and fro. The cucumber patch was a tangle of drying vines on the crumbly earth; its pale green leaves tinged with patterns of brown. The huge Hmong cucumbers were the size of cantaloupes and honeydews. The smooth green of their large bellies were turning yellow in the late season. Heavy veins grew wild and rigid on the cucumber skins. We wanted the veins to grow heavy and bold on their surface. We wanted to be able to feel age creeping into the soft, pale flesh. We wanted them to sour up so that we can sweeten the scraped meat and juice with sugar and allow the slippery slide of cucumber strips down our throats. My mother and I stood together in the graying day surrounded by the sounds of late season crickets and the reward of her hard work.
My mother had wanted a garden since we moved into the brown house forty minutes from the Twin Cities, but with five younger children to contend with in the evenings and weekends and her job as a file clerk to get to early, early in the mornings, the garden was little more than a wish spoken out loud. Five years passed quickly in the brown house with the continuous sound of doors slamming, the voices of English from the television laughing and screaming, the voices of her children in Hmong and English clamoring to understand and grasp life around them. When my mother developed carpal tunnel in both hands from the repetitious motions at work and started a course of treatment, her life slowed down because of her inability to work. She lost her ability to stir the pots of pork and green that she made for dinner or hold steady the steering wheel of a car. When the doctors discovered that my mother’s shoulders needed to be operated on, that there were bone spurs growing into the joints, and had proceeded with surgery, my mother’s job was given to someone else. At the age of forty-seven, my mother found herself at home for the first time since we came to America twenty-one years earlier, this time without the freedom of movement in her arms, the agility of her hands, the sound hearing of her ears, or the quick mind of her youth. When her youngest two children were transferred into St. Paul schools and relegated to living in the city the work week through, time slammed in front of my mother’s path like a rotten tree. My older sister got married. I fell in love and made plans for my own marriage. At the age of fifty, my mother decided that her garden could wait no longer.
In the wetness of spring, my mother despaired that the soggy earth would never be ready for planting. When the rains finally stopped and her walks to the garden did not leave her shoes sinking in mud up to the shins, she gathered seeds from my aunts, collections they’ve harbored over the years, and started her garden. My father would stop by on his way to the chicken coop in the early mornings and unlock the gate for her, and in the evenings, after work take a short walk and lock up the gate for her. Her hands grew red and swollen, and she asked me to help plant the lines of green onions, the shallots, the onion, and the cilantro. I had knelt on the knees of my old jeans, used my gloved fingers to dig dirt and place the eyes of my seeds deep into the earth. In the spring, marriage seemed far away. I spoke to her freely and without self consciousness about how we would harvest the garden together. We chattered and chattered, both feeling too keenly the ephemeral nature of Time, the draw of the days. When the first green shoots surfaced on the dark earth, my mother was full of excitement. Each morning, she pointed out the green to me from the kitchen window.
All summer long, my mother pointed her garden out to me from our kitchen window. Despite her allergies to sunshine, the bumps that rose on her forearms and her neck, the itchy that never went away, my mother toiled in her garden. I would look out the kitchen window as I washed dishes and see, in the stark sun, the shape of my mother crouched low to the ground, digging, pulling, tilling to her plants. Each time it rained, she worried that her garden would not get enough or perhaps too much. Whenever the wind grew heavy, my mother gathered twigs and small branches to stake in the ground and give her plants a grounding so they wouldn’t tumble over. When the long summer days began to shorten and the tips of the Minnesota prairie grass begin to yellow in the hot sun, my mother knew that a cooler season would come. We watched her garden grow heavy and tall with green, the plants bending with the burden of their vegetables.
On August 6, 2011, my wedding day, my mother did not say much to me or come too close. I was thirty years old. Unlike going away to college or graduate school, my first business trip or my most recent one, I had chosen a course that would not bring me to my bed late at night, in my home, tucked beneath the slumbering love of my parents and my siblings. I had chosen marriage. On my wedding day, I looked for my mother every chance I could and I spied her running to and fro, sitting and standing, reaching for this and securing that, exhausting herself for love of me.
When the sun made its descent to mark the day’s end, my mother and I walked back to the house slowly. I carried the green Menard’s pail of corn in both my hands. I moved my body in accordance with the swaying motion of the pail, to accommodate and balance, against the cool evening wind. My mother pulled the garden cart behind her, filled up to the brim with melons and squash, mostly Hmong cucumbers. She waited for me every few steps. She told me to put my pail on top of the cart. She said the weight of the corns was too heavy for me. I fumbled against a fall, clasped my teeth and shook my head. I was not looking forward to the shelter of the garage, to putting the heavy in my hands down. My mother was not in a hurry to pull the cart into its place beside the gardening table in the garage. We both wished in our hearts that we could walk with our bounty for days to come. Rest was not a destination. Home was not a place. There was no going because we had already come.
At the doorway, after loading more corn than I could ever eat, more eggplants than I knew what to do with, more Hmong cucumbers than I had sugar for into the car, my mother held me briefly in her arms.
She said, “Night is coming. I don’t want you to drive through the dark. Go home now.”
We began crying at the same time.
I said, “I don’t want to go, Niam. I am already home.”
She did not say where home was. She did not need to. She has always only ever been the only home I’ve ever truly known as mine. My mother with her wild curls, a rough halo around her head, in the light of our front door, allowing the wind to seep in between her hold, her arms falling loose, her hand at the door, and the door closes and my heart is somewhere in the between, and my eyes have lost sight of the night, and the train track is empty and the moon is rising with each breath I struggle to take. My mother closed the door on our tears.
I imagine my mother sinking to the floor, her hands over her eyes, engulfed in grief. The silent house hums around her and the ticking of our old butterfly clock from upstairs. My mother knows I am in the dark of night. She listens for the sound of a car door opening, closing, the beginning of engine, the sound of squished gravel as I drive away. And all I can do is put both hands on the wheel, my foot on the pedal. If she had opened the door, I would have run home. If she had looked out the window, I would have stopped the car. If she had asked for me to stay, I would never leave. But my mother did not open the door, look out a curtain’s edge, or called for me to come. So I drove, as if in a dream, on a wavering road of water away.
It was the hardest thing I had ever done. There was no question of right or wrong, of going forward or back. It was all in the moment and the moment was alone. The phone did not ring and the song on the radio—a story of love, someone else’s love, romantic love, the kind that had driven me into the here, of love so unlike my mother’s because it could not hold in its arms all that I had ever known as mine. I cried because I did not know and could not know but felt the sorrow of a mother letting go.
Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American writer working from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University. Yang is the author of the award-winning memoir, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (Coffee House Press, 2008). She has just finished her second memoir, Still, Fluttering Heart: The Second Album. An excerpt from the work garnered the Mcknight Fellowship in April of 2013. Yang is beginning a study of fiction.
What motivates her to create?
“Love. I am in love with the people whose stories I yearn to tell. I want to do it well for them and for me, and then world we belong to. I write because it is my most natural form of creating on the page. I write to create because so much of the lives I write about don’t live within the pages of what is written. I can make connections, but they cannot do it with me. Many of my elders do not read and write. For the Hmong people, writing is a new medium. I write because I love being Hmong and I love the stories that have made us who we are.”