A World of Tangled Vines, Falling Berries, Bruised Grapes, Rough Rinds, and Ripening Flesh


Mom cracks the packed dirt with a hand hoe and turns it over again and again. She works right through dinnertime and doesn’t come out of the yard when her arms start to ache and her knees stiffen. Above her, the sky closes up. The pace of Eastern Circle slows down. Kids stroll through the projects instead of running. Grown folks hoist themselves off their porches and head inside. Before nightfall, my mother piles dirt into a row and down the length of it digs small holes with her fingers, around and around until each one is deep enough to hold the strawberry seeds that her father gave her.

She models her garden after Dada’s.

He grows red tea roses and sunflowers, so she plants them too. But after her first season, she discovers that her calling is fruit. He brings her eggplant and cucumbers, and she offers him cantaloupe, watermelon, and blackberries. Sometimes they work together in her garden, adopting an easy rhythm of digging and planting. He tells her stories that reach all the way back to Nashville and even to Selma. His parents met on a plantation and grew crops for a white man who wanted them to have nothing of their own. When they left his fields for good, they had their first and only son. Together they harvested food like okra and watermelon and taught their little boy when to water, when to weed, and when to just step back. Mom listens to her father’s stories and leans into the land, not only her yard, but the entire neighborhood. A place that belongs to her family and friends— twenty-three acres tucked away on the eastern side of the city.

She was eight years old when her family moved into Eastern Circle, and her father planted his first garden. He decided what to grow by watching how the sun fell and where the large bushes gave off too much shade. He couldn’t clear the brush all at once, so he took his time, working under the full sun and sometimes in the faint light of early morning. When his vegetables began to sprout, she’d watch him stride in between the rows, tracing his hand along the bend of a collard green, raking his fingers in the soil just for the feel of it.

His garden, the only one in Eastern Circle, enlivened everything around it: the brick buildings, the concrete porches, the white screen doors, the narrow walkways. Its colors deepened with the day’s changing light. And from week to week, buds broke and leaves unfurled. Even the soil, raked and moist, yielded variation: smooth stones broken into bits, tiny sand crystals, dark clay. Every summer, twenty rows of vegetables and flowers rose up in his yard, and his neighbors stopped by just to be near it.

When Mom moved into her own apartment in the projects, she wanted a garden too and her father helped her care for it until the summer he died. As the days march on his yard looks like it always does at that time of the year: tomato plants wrapped around branches, yellow squash hidden between leaves, eggplant suspended like dark half-moons. The marigolds, lilies, jasmine, sunflowers, and daisies stand at full height. The climbing rose bush strung over the porch awning is on the verge of blooming. Mom tends his garden: watering at daybreak, pulling weeds out by hand, leaving the worms alone.

One night when she’s home in bed, she tries not to think about what’s taken root in Eastern Circle—an enterprise that brings in strangers and keeps young men standing on the curb. She especially tries not to think about the fight her father had tried to break up. Instead, she asks for a sign that his spirit is at rest and the very next day, she gets her proof. His roses bloom more gloriously than they ever had before, jutting out over the porch, reaching up the side of the house.

Her devotion to her garden, just up the hill, becomes absolute. She sinks into a world of tangled vines, falling berries, bruised grapes, rough rinds, and ripening flesh. Because of Dada, she knows to loosen the ground around her plants by pressing her palms into the soil. She knows to water her strawberries more than her roses. She knows after a downpour to go out for the worms. She knows to spray a mixture of liquid soap and Worcestershire sauce on her buds to keep the beetles and slugs away. And on the days when there’s no planting or weeding to be done, she steps between the rows of her garden and bows her head anyway.

By the fall she’s picked the last of the tomatoes and squash from Dada’s garden. There are only different shades of green left: lettuce, cabbage, kale, and the prickly leaves on the rosebush. One evening when Mom finishes working in his garden, she wants to sit on the porch and admire it the way she used to but doesn’t because nothing around her feels the same. Before, Eastern Circle was the tickle of tall grass on her ankles, fireflies, the hum of the brook, her father pointing to the Big Dipper set strong and shimmering against the night sky. But since his murder, she understands the truth. Eastern Circle isn’t hidden from other neighborhoods like a precious stone; it’s isolated and lowly, hanging onto the edge of the city.

That year, winter comes slowly and buries Dada’s garden day by day. The leaves turn brown. The mounds recede. The dirt becomes hard and ashy.