The Tiller

April 04, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The crocuses have arrived at last, migrating inches up from their underground home. The woman notices them on her morning walk -- stands of purple, yellow and white posing against a landscape of relentless taupe.

She brakes for signs of spring these days, stopping at each cluster, trading her aerobic high for an adrenalin rush of flowers. This is how we are in New England, grateful for small things.

We have a fifth season here -- a season of mud and monochrome. To the south of us, states are awash in dogwood. In the capital, there are cherry blossoms. But here we hover protectively over scrawny buds on a weedy forsythia bush. It's a ways yet to tulips and azaleas.

This morning, though, the crocuses are up and her defenses are down. So when she gets home, the woman takes her garden catalogs out of hibernation and spreads them on the table.

She squints at the pages like someone coming out of a darkened movie theater facing the afternoon sunlight. Yellow roses glare up at her. Poppies and delphinium flaunt their lush Julyness before her March-weary eyes.

There is a cornucopia set down on the Formica table. Ten varieties of tomatoes, six pages of peppers, whole chapters of cucumbers and zucchini, snap peas and beans. Exotic offerings of arugula, bok choy, coriander.

In a seasonal rush, she greedily turns down the corners of pages and starts an elaborate list of all the things she will plant and harvest. Two of this, six of that, eight of these. And then, abruptly, she puts down her pen.

The garden growing on this list looks nothing like her life. It's the list of a romantic, a planting ingenue, someone whose eyes are bigger than her acreage.

But this is a woman who has been gardening for 20 years -- drawn to the task by fussy taste buds and the city dweller's wonder at what a seed can make of itself.

She has grown zucchini in such absurd quantities that even the raccoons refused them. She's harvested enough basil to make pesto for a regimental pasta. She's grown cantaloupes the size and taste of baseballs. She's fought aphids, fed beer to slugs, encountered the tomato worm, watched squirrels eat her tulip bulbs.

If gardening is a metaphor for life, then surely she should have an older and wiser plan. If midlife is about anything, she tells herself, it's about knowing your limits.

By midlife you should know what works best for you whether it's a rugged mint plant or an easy hairstyle. You should know, finally, what you really want out of the smorgasbord of choices -- whether it's roses or relationships. By midlife, surely, the sense you ought to cultivate is the common one.

The truth is this midlife gardener is better at planning and planting than at weeding and watering. Her April vows of constancy are broken by mid-July. She plays tennis when she should fertilize and reads novels when all the experts say she should be training green beans to climb up twine.

With this narrowed eye, she picks up the catalogs, reconsidering the offers. This year, she tells herself sternly, she will be a tough customer. This year, it's time to admit that she doesn't have room for corn or patience for pumpkins or the season for melons that pose so seductively in the catalog. It's time to create a garden of experience, not infatuation.

She takes up the pen again and begins to till a rational plan. Tomatoes hardy enough to tolerate neglect. Dependable day lilies. Orderly irises. Indestructible chives. Peonies that she can pass on to the children. Enough is enough.

But then she looks up from her paper garden at the landscape out her window -- the lingering mud, the bare trees, the modest crocuses -- and her imagination leaps back out of its self-imposed boundaries to another possibility. Sunflowers, she thinks. Dozens of them. Six feet tall, nine inches wide, a lush, overflowing excess of yellow.

For no sensible reason at all, she wants a field of sunflowers. Before she can censor this rebellious thought, this veteran gardener scribbles them in at the bottom of the list and then, smiling, gets up from the task.

At midlife, after all, she says to herself, we still need to make room for the possibility of surprise. Even the possibility of surprising ourselves.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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