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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/13/13

Juan Roberto's Garden

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Juan Roberto's garden was his pride and joy.   It was the pride and joy of the neighborhood, too, and no one went hungry or without the simple pleasure of freshly cut flowers. It was where he began each day and ended each night; tending to the leaves and vines, pinching off a dead flower head, tamping the damp soil around a new, fragile shoot to give it strength.   The soil and its gifts gave meaning to Juan Roberto's life. He was a fortunate man and had been lucky in life; mostly in love, which to him made him the luckiest man on earth.

His garden burst with perfectly groomed rows of juicy peppers, tender spring asparagus, tiny artichokes. Walls were lost behind trailing vines dripping with fragrant blossoms, towering gladioli, birds of paradise, geranium and plumbago. Gently, he stroked the leaves of some of his favorites; crushing a small blossom between his forefinger and thumb to release the perfume of the jasmine, orange and lime tree blossoms, or rubbing the leaves to free the oils. They were three of his favorites, but like children, he never told them, so not to cause any animosity. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

The late spring sun was at its most intense and while the pots of lavender, the cacti and other succulents, the bougainvillea, even the Spanish olive trees whose slender leaves glistened silver seemed to enjoy the long days of heat, the palm fronds were turning gold and the greedy ivy, thirstier than ever, sagged against the crumbling stone wall. The lilies, too, began to wither and Juan Roberto ensured them that they would all have enough to drink. He spoke softly to his plants, he never scolded. Even when they yellowed or looked forlorn he spoke kindly because he believed it soothing and encouraged good feelings between them. After all, he was known for his beautiful garden, and, if his constant tending and gentle words contributed to the grace of beautiful flowers, the deepest green leaves, succulent vegetables bursting with flavor, he would forever be in their debt.

His neighbors, too, were grateful recipients of the bounty from his garden and called him "Don" out of respect -- not only for his green thumb, but for his generosity, and his advanced age.   When they stopped by to collect the first plump tomatoes and sweet carrots, sprigs of chamomile or lemon balm for brewing tea or their altars, he encouraged them to offer thanks to the plants, which they did without hesitation.

Only once did Juan Roberto lose his temper when ten year old Jose Luis giggled when he was instructed to tell the red pepper plant that its peppers were very delicious, muy rico.   Young Jose Luis giggled and rolled his eyes and made a voice like a little girl, "You're so preeety, little red pepper! And so tasty too, yum!" mocking the pepper and causing Juan Roberto to send him home without part of his mother's dinner.   After that incident, however, Jose Luis was always very polite whenever he was allowed back into his neighbor's garden and for his effort, Juan Roberto would send him home with extra chickpeas or a chili pepper for his mother's soup. "If you continue to respect the earth's bounty, one day you may have your own garden and people will line up to pay their respects." Young Jose Luis nodded and smiled shyly, and without encouragement and when the Don wasn't looking, he whispered kind words to the chickpeas.

He had been especially tired today, but still he walked the five streets to Don Martin's tienda to buy a few things his garden didn't provide, but mostly though, to buy the thick squares of fresh pan de elote, the moist cornbread, still warm, that was made daily by the fruit vendor's wife. Carrying his groceries home the straw basket felt heavier than usual; his heart felt even more burdensome than the basket that was laden with the heavy cornbread, so he walked slowly, balancing his heart on the left and his basket on the right, down familiar streets toward home. Poco a poco, he thought. Little by little. No need to rush. The heat of the day had begun early and he needed to pace himself. After all, he wasn't a young man.

Having washed the fresh fruits and vegetables from his garden and the mangoes from his friend's tienda, he set them out to dry.   Instead of putting them in the wooden bowl on the small Equipale table, or straight into the refrigerator, he stopped to admire the beauty of his first asparagus, leggy, bright green and tender. The baby artichokes were like firm blossoms, the mango, a lovey apricot color, unblemished and soft like a newborns skin. On a large platter he arranged the produce like a still life, the bright colors exploding across his kitchen counter. If I was an artist, he thought, I would paint this.  

He went to bed early that night but couldn't sleep. He lay in bed and watched the light change ever so slightly, listened to the church bells ringing on the hour, the roosters, crickets that seemed to chirp all night when the days grew longer and hotter.

On their wedding day she held three white calla lilies; one for her, one for him, and one for their life together. Her shiny black hair was adorned with a single sprig of jasmine. Finally, a thin ribbon of golden pink light shown through his curtains. He was glad.

He climbed down the stairs and for the first time, held tightly to the stair rail. In later years his life had been difficult, too much pain and loss which now, mostly overshadowed the joy, except when he was in his beloved garden. He had learned along the way there were some things in life that he couldn't control or ever change. But he worried far too much, and he wished he hadn't. For a moment, he felt regret, but let it go sooner than he normally would. There was strong coffee to brew and he looked forward to the cornbread sweetened with mesquite honey.

He took his breakfast outside as he did each morning and sat in his usual spot in the sun. The neighbor's old cat walked the high ledge of the stone wall and jumped down to see him, asking for a handout. He was grateful to oblige and share his breakfast, breaking off a morsel of the cornbread, a prime corner piece that had one of only a few large, plump corn kernels that were always a surprise when found, smoky, moist and creamy. He gave it to the ancient cat. She ate appreciatively and looked up at him and smiled, licking her lips. I've lived even more lives than you, he thought.  

After breakfast he admired all the tiny, fresh shoots; the translucent bright green of new and tender life, always hopeful and aiming for nothing but the sun, without a care in the world.   All new life was hopeful, as it should be - that precious naivete that is destined to fade with time. He lightly touched each fragile shoot, just to let it know it was appreciated, but soon enough it would find out that it needed more than that to grow.

He watered the plants, making sure to spray the leaves of some and allowing the water to cup in crevices and curls so small birds and bees could drink after the heat of the sun. He didn't even care if the wasps, grasshoppers and crickets found the pools of water to their liking. He had become soft as an old man; much softer than when he was young. He didn't mind. Hardness was heavier to carry.

He wished he had spent more time in his garden, tending to the flowers and plants, deadheading and pruning, been more diligent about staking the tomatoes when they got spindly, feeling the soil between his fingers and under his bare feet. It made him happy. The smell of damp, fertile earth, the citrus blossoms after a summer rain, the lavender he would then dry and place in small bowls near windows to discourage scorpions, all gave him great pleasure. As a boy, he had once read a story about   a lavender farmer in the South of France who would do this, and when Juan Roberto became a man and began his own garden, he had lavender enough to use against scorpions, and equally so, he loved the woodsy smell that permeated his small house.

He smiled when he thought of the twigs of lavender she would tuck in his clothes drawer or beneath a freshly laundered sheet. Once, when she didn't know he was watching, he saw her crush a single white jasmine blossom between her fingers and rub the oil behind her ears and gently down the space between her breasts. Most times, though, he felt the memory was a painful thing but today, it was comforting, like an old friend.

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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a (more...)

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