Last year in the week before Mother’s Day, we were feeling the effects on our wallets of an early-May trip to Disney World, so my wife and I agreed we would not exchange gifts for the springtime Hallmark parenting holidays. However, my son, who was four at the time, wanted to get something for his mom, and who was I to squelch such an impulse to generosity and gratitude? Since the plants on our front porch needed some seasonal refreshing, I told him that he could pick out a plant from the local big-box home store (please don’t judge) to give to his mother for her day.
We went on our guys-only shopping trip, and he instantly picked out a green plant with tiny star-shaped flowers which were, of all colors, white. Why wouldn’t he? He has made it clear for at least half his life that he loves white flowers. I showed him that he could get the same plant with flowers that were brilliant pinks or rich, warm shades of orange. I reminded him that he and I share a favorite color, yellow, and pointed out that there were healthy specimens of the same variety in that bright, cheerful color. We paused in that conversation, looked for other departments at the store, picked out a few items I needed, and then returned to the subject of flowers for mom. After more discussion, we headed to the checkout counter, me with my few necessities, and him proudly carrying his gift, with its plain, white flowers.
I really am, at heart, pleased with the whole incident. My son has strong opinions about what is beautiful. He appreciates the effects of color, or the lack of color, on the look of things. He sees in his own way what is worthy to serve as a gift for his beloved mother. And he knows how to express all of those opinions, all of that appreciation, and all of that vision through the natural materials of the garden.
I am reminded of this scene at the local big-box home store because of an article I read in the days leading up to Father’s Day last week. The writer was reminiscing about her father and how he taught her about gardening. Her father knew that his gardening was secondary in importance to his role as a father, so he made decisions about what to do in his yard not solely based on the light, soil, water, and other conditions. He also took into consideration the opinions, appreciations, visions, and even the playful whims of the little girls in his home.
That is the kind of gardener, and more importantly, the kind of father I hope I am to my son. A father like that can teach a whole host of things to his child: about nature, about beauty, about hobbies, about what it means to live in a family and a neighborhood and other relationships, about play and fun. I recognize that my son may or may not experience as he grows up the same satisfaction I get from the hard and dirty work of keeping the yard. I know that he may find other ways to help to create, or at least to arrange, beauty and sustenance in this world. But I believe that part of what I can give him is some understanding of the world that he can never gain in a classroom, and sharing in my own love of gardening is one way I can give him that gift.
There are plenty of times my son is less than interested in the garden. Usually when I ask him if he wants to help me water or do other quick chores on a Saturday afternoon, he says he would rather stay inside and play computer games with his mom. Sometimes he takes me up on the offer, but I know that his attention to what I am doing will be short-lived, and he will soon be waving the sticks that have fallen from the trees in the front yard like they are magic wands or weapons in some epic battle of good and evil. On our frequent trips into the back yard to turn it into a zoo which must be developed, or a series of islands which must be explored, or a dinosaur battlefield which must be defended, I sometimes get a bit distracted and start pulling weeds in the flower beds. He gets annoyed at my efforts to restore order amid the pine straw and commands me to return my attention to the game. He doesn’t always love gardening, and he possibly never will.
But one morning last week, on the first bright day after a week or so of thunderstorms and rain, he looked out the door and saw the most ginormous mushroom ever, and it was growing in the middle of our back yard. He was already late to leave for his summer camp, but I promised I would take a couple of close-up photos and show them to him after I got home from work. He made me keep my promise, and I happily obliged, showing him digital images of the really big mushroom as well as a number of other mushrooms which had popped up in our lawns and flower beds. Some had straight stems and some were slanted; some were brown, some were white, and some were some set of colors in between; some had perfectly rounded tops and others had all manner of curves and curls about them. He looked at the photos, and then he hurried outside, first to the back yard and then to the front, looking for all of these specimens of wonder. He found them all, coming back in to excitedly report to me which ones were still there and which ones had already fallen over from their own weight or been stepped on by the dog.
We got to talk over the next few days about how fungi are similar to and different from plants and about shapes and sizes and colors of different mushrooms. We found some gnarly, asymmetrical mushrooms growing right up against the lavender which emitted a puff of powder when we kicked them, and we talked about spores and baby mushrooms. We talked about poison as well as about the technique of sauteing in butter. His mother got to tell him about her experiences picking wild mushrooms when she lived in Hungary, and about never daring to eat any of them until the local grocer confirmed which were good and which could kill you with the smallest morsel. We might have exaggerated a bit on that last part for effect. Mostly, we got to witness the wonder together as a family about the beautiful, unique, and even strange things that can come from the dirt of our little bit of nature.
And I feel like I might be doing something right as a father.