Joan's Garden

by Ann Thomas
(Danville CA USA)

It’s been two years, but not a week goes by that I don't think of Joan. I can see the yard from my kitchen window, often as it used to be—a Monet landscape framed by my kitchen curtains. There is grass there now, grass and her grandchildren.

When she moved in, they were three; Joan, her husband, and the child Bill. The husband was seldom home. I woke each morning to the sound of his car leaving in the dark and didn’t hear his return until long after I had finished our evening dishes. His work, she said, kept him away.

The boy was quiet and polite. He always responded when I spoke to him, but his sentences carried awkwardness, as if he had memorized sequences of words for such occasions. His eyes, morning glory blue, looked past me, searching for something not there. He sat often on the patio while she gardened, the two of them engaged in solitary parallel play.

Their lot isn’t large, but the houses in our subdivision have been set forward toward the road, to leave a large free space in back. For most of us, this was a space of patchy grass punctuated with swing sets, sandboxes and bases for ballgames. Her yard was something different, a separate world where she turned every inch of the space into garden. She began this work a few days after they moved in, and within a season had created a maze of gardens connected to each other by pathways.

After the first year, there were times, especially in those breath-holding numinous moments neither day nor night, when the yard appeared to take on the appearance of a brothel. The air, musk heavy, seemed hung with brocade of crimson and gold. Those timid plants, most comfortable beside a grandmother’s cottage, closed to sleep while the bold and seductive ones unfolded, petal-by-petal, and opened to the night. Some nights I would see her walking there, shawl-clad, stooping to bury her face in a patch of night blooming jasmine, or reaching up to caress a six-foot lily that, in turn, left it’s pollen-kiss on her cheek. Always alone, this was her private tryst.

By day she moved among the plants, singing and talking, a mother to them all, and from what I could overhear, they behaved no better nor worse than any human child would. Some needed almost constant direction, like offspring who forgot what they were to do the minute one walked away, while others practiced mischief and fell out of cages meant to provide support. She scolded and threatened, but whether this helped or not, I never knew.

I saw rivalry in the garden as well, daisies that spread to take up more than their allotted space clashing with day lilies that had never backed down before. The struggle would continue, with imaginary lines drawn daily in the ground, until she arrived with her trowel to separate the two.

From time to time she found sickly ones to nurse back to health. She fussed with the finicky ones, unable to decide on a comfortable space to root, and pampered and coaxed the timid into bloom.

She was somewhere in her yard daily, digging here, clipping there, tying and staking those larger plants that needed support, pulling up the uninvited guest that threatened some plant precious to her. Summer heat required extra watering and deadheading and brought forth armies of insects to be fought. Each day found her there, with her large straw hat and kneepads.

As he grew, the boy Bill continued to shun, however politely, invitations from other neighborhood children and found companionship in solitary pursuits mostly hidden to outsiders like myself. He had no interest in the garden and didn’t seem to require much from her. While my own provided an ongoing chorus of noisy requests and demands, he appeared to neither ask nor accept, and beyond statements inquiring about hunger or suggesting bedtime, she didn’t offer.

Winter brought rain. Plants in danger of being beaten-down needed stakes, and she was out in her yellow slicker and boots, a New England fisherman on western land. When the weather threatened to turn cold, as it sometimes does in this part of California, I saw her there still, bundled in a flannel shirt with a stocking cap pulled low to cover her ears.

Her skin had long ago taken on a rough, weathered appearance, and the dirt underneath her nails looked permanent. Her eyes, that same morning glory blue when viewed unobserved, took on a cold, almost gray look when distracted from the plants. I, as her next-door neighbor, knew her better than anyone on our street, and yet I could not count her as a friend. We talked, over the years, with the formal politeness of neighbors who met only by accident. By the time the boy left for boarding school, it was easy to forget to ask about him. When I did remember, her responses were vague and she grew politely bored when I offered tidbits about my own. Only when I asked about some part of the garden did her eyes warm. I gave up trying to understand; instead saw her as the garden artist she was.

After what seemed like only a few precious years, time permanently changed our human world, as one by one the children went off to college and afterward into their own lives. Only her garden world repeated itself in a new, but unchanging manner. Her attire, as she worked at her tending, changed with the seasons only to reappear a year later. Her hair grew white, but her skin remained forever weathered and garden-aged.

Her husband’s death brought a temporary interruption to her routine. The boy, now grown, came and brought with him a wife and baby. His wife seemed pleasant, pleased with any who asked about the baby, while he carried with him that same polite, but far away gaze. I thought she might ask them to stay on a bit, but they left almost immediately after the funeral. She returned to her garden.

As she grew old, she added a stool for sitting and a small wagon to pull her tools. Her fall wasn’t a first, but her now fragile bones suffered a break. I saw the fall through my kitchen window and called the ambulance. It felt right that I visit, and I’m glad I did. Her own health never concerned her, but she was frantic about her garden. I did what I could to reassure her, although I wasn’t able to provide anything toward its maintenance, and long before she was well enough she hobbled with a cane on the pathways. A girl came to help, and worked under her direction. I watched as the girl bent and lifted, following directions punctuated with the pointing of her cane. Within a short time, she fell again.

Then the son came with his wife. They now had two little boys, each with peanut butter smeared faces and morning glory eyes. One had already lost a front tooth while the other bragged that his were almost ready.

They would move in, the son said, and looked at her, now wheelchair bound. The truck came, along with the shuffling of furniture, but she showed no interest and spent her time each day on the patio. She pushed her chair down the pathways until the wheels stopped, embedded in the pathway bark. Then she would reach out and touch gently whatever plant was near until someone noticed and retrieved her to their solid ground.

She’s getting worse, the wife told me. I don’t think we can keep her here. When I didn’t answer, she added, He’s found a home—it’s nearby. She’ll be happy there. A silence and then, It’s too much! She shook her head, stared out toward the garden where the woman sat. I never knew if she meant the garden or the woman.

I waited for the day of the move with dread, unsure who would care for the gardens and how the woman would survive the worry of their abandonment. They’ll find a gardener, I told her. They’ll let me pick, and I’ll bring you bouquets. She tried to smile, but her eyes stayed gray.

The bulldozing began one morning around ten. He was home so it must have been a Saturday. I could hear her screams above the sound from the machine and by the time I reached her yard, the roses were already gone. I walked into the machine’s path and the bulldozer stopped. I stood looking at the boy turned man, waiting until he spoke.

I’m making a yard, he said. A place for a family. Take some if you want.

You must wait, I said. She shouldn’t see this. It’s too cruel.

He sat, looked off into some space of his, then nodded and drove the tractor into the garage.

We took a few of the roses, the woman and I, to plant in my yard where they might continue to live. Then I wheeled her away from the carnage.

I’ll plant these, I said. I’ll bring you roses next summer when they bloom.

She sat without speaking.

He’s stopped, I continued. He just didn’t think, but the rest of the gardens are fine.

We both felt the futility of my lie. She died within a week of the move, but no garden flowers remained to take to her service.

The two children now play on the grass. At first I saw the man there, giving attention, but that stopped as he moved on to whatever he found more interesting. Now I never see him, although I hear his car early in the morning before first light. The wife watches the children by day and at night she sits on the patio alone. Recently I saw that she had planted some roses, and along the side, closest to my house, she’s planting a little garden.

Dr. Ann Thomas is an author, speaker, and psychotherapist who lectures internationally. Visit her web site at

Comments for Joan's Garden

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Jan 02, 2014
by: John Geddes

Time, love, life, and relationship -- i found all of these captured here in this short story. I could say many positive things but I hope the most meaningful is that you took me there, made me feel both the joy and the loss, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you.

Mar 27, 2011
by: Jennifer

I hope someday to write as well as you do. This was a beautiful story, written tight. I have so much to learn.

Aug 10, 2010
A powerful story
by: Mark Patrick

Hi Dr. Ann, the subtlety of this story is so powerful. I enjoyed the comparative cycles of the seasons and the garden to the cycles of family and relationships. A beautiful, tragic ending to a touching story. Thank you

Jun 13, 2010
by: Anita

This is so good, I wish I had written it myself.

May 06, 2010
by: Terri Forehand

This story is so well written that one has to read it twice to understand the emotional impact these words have. There are several underlying messages, and isn't that what every good writer strives for. Great work.

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