Tend Your Own Garden

The sunroom where Myra sat quilting with her cat asleep beside her on the couch was normally warm, quiet and peaceful on a Sunday afternoon, but today the shrieks and screams of nearby children penetrated the solitude. They were jumping up and down in a rented moonbounce outside in the neighbor’s yard.

It was Evelyn’s sixth birthday. Scott and Elizabeth had moved in when their girl was three and the boy was five. When the little girl asked to pet Myra’s cat, Myra said no. The cat liked to scratch little girls. She herself had four grown children, not one of whom had bothered to visit in the past three years. William was an engineer in Northern California. Celeste was married with teenagers. Christine was divorced and struggling to make it as a freelance writer. She only called when she needed money. Paul had just finished his master’s degree in counseling.

It would have been nice if Scott or Elizabeth had given Myra some advance warning about the birthday party. If she had known, she would have made plans to see one of her friends from the book club, or she would have gone to the fabric store, or at least gone grocery shopping. But neither one had spoken to her since she told Scott exactly what she thought of his most recent project – building a shed for his ever-growing pile of firewood. In short, it was unsightly, unnecessary, and possibly a violation of a city ordinance. Myra was considering filing a formal complaint.

A history instructor at the local community college, Scott had apparently gotten a master’s degree because he wanted to spend the rest of his life working off the debt by doing odd jobs for his elderly neighbors – everyone other than Myra – and because he was trying to suppress his true desire to become a lumberjack. Everyone suffered. Most of all Myra.

She looked outside to see swarms of children jumping inside the moonbounce. Unlike the other women, who were wearing sundresses with matching cardigans, Elizabeth was in jeans and a black T-shirt. She placed a pitcher of lemonade on the picnic table and took a seat, rubbing her arms as if she were cold.

It was late April and the weather was fair, but Elizabeth had a chilly streak that Myra could relate to. Before the fight about the woodshed, Myra had always liked the girl. She kept to herself and didn’t go outside unless she was with Evelyn and Riley. She wasn’t one of those neighborhood busybodies always ringing your doorbell and asking for your money, or worse, your time.

Scott sat down beside Elizabeth.

“Your mom just called,” he said. “She can’t make it.”

Elizabeth turned her head abruptly, startled from a short dream she was having while wide awake.

“Are you serious? What’s the excuse this time?”

“He’s having car trouble,” Scott replied flatly. “Want me to go see if I can fix it?”

“Nice try,” Elizabeth said, her voice rising in anger. “I’m sure you’d like to ditch me, too.”

“Keep your voice down,” Scott said.

“Why the hell are Larry Totempole’s car troubles my mother’s problem?” Elizabeth asked disgustedly.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want that loser coming anyway,” Scott said of Elizabeth’s mother’s significant other, whose name was not actually Larry Totempole, but Larry Moving Sun. He was a shaman.

“Don’t even start,” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “We’ve got eight parental figures between the two of us, and not one of them can be bothered to attend our daughter’s birthday party. It’s a good thing I’ve got friends ….”

Just then, they were approached by Elizabeth’s coworker Philip Wood. He and his partner Todd were foster parents. They were currently taking care of Pete and Julia, fraternal twins. Pete had Down Syndrome.

“What are you over here stewing about?” Philip asked Elizabeth.

“My mother and her stupid boyfriend,’ Elizabeth replied. “They’re not coming.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” Phil said. “I was hoping she would bring those little dream catchers she makes and hand them out as party favors. I still have the one you gave me last Christmas.”

Elizabeth went inside to get the cake. She hated parties. From the time she had arrived home from work on Friday evening until the event began on Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth had done nothing but clean, and make food, and drive back and forth to the store. And from the time the sun rose on Sunday morning until the party began, Riley and Evelyn had asked her every five minutes when it would start. When would the friends arrive? When would they get to open presents?

Scott’s mother and stepfather lived in England. They’d send a card with $20 in it. His father and stepmother were an hour away, but Scott’s father was recently retired, and they’d gotten a spectacular deal on plane tickets to Arizona. They had always wanted to see the Grand Canyon.

Elizabeth’s parents were not technically remarried, but both had a special someone. Her father lived in New Jersey and ran a pizza shop with the waitress he’d left her mother for. Larry Moving Sun was the most recent addition to the list of individuals for whom Elizabeth imagined she would need to buy a Christmas gift. And when she expressed her concerns about him, Judy told Elizabeth that she was just jealous because Larry was getting so much of Judy’s attention lately.

“No, Mom,” Elizabeth said, “I just wish for once you’d fall for someone with more assets than liabilities.”

“My daughter, the gold digger,” Judy replied sarcastically.

Elizabeth carried the pink and white Hello Kitty cake out and set it on the table. The crowd gathered around. Myra stared at the group from the window in her sunroom.

“Happy birthday, Dear Evelyn,” the group sang. Their voices scratched at Myra’s ears. Their accents. It had taken Myra years just to be able to understand these people. And now none of them would speak a kind word to her. So much for Southern hospitality.

“This cake is delish,” Myra heard Philip say to Elizabeth. “How did you make this frosting?”

She watched as Elizabeth smiled, sipped her lemonade, and discreetly gave Philip the middle finger.

The next comment was sincere.

“Elizabeth, those tulips. Where did you get those? I’ve never seen any that color.”

“Oh, those aren’t mine,” she said, eyeing the clump of flowers that delineated the property line.

“They’re hers,” Elizabeth said, her voice lowering to a whisper in attempt to explain that the glorious crimson tulips belonged to their very temperamental neighbor.

“We don’t say her name,” Elizabeth said. “We’re not allowed over there. But yes, they are lovely.”

Myra had had enough. She got her keys and purse and walked out the door, giving the gawking group of onlookers a glare of contempt before getting into her car and driving away.

The next morning, Myra awakened in a cold sweat to the sound of a chain saw. It was 8:30 a.m. She looked out her window. Elizabeth had already left for work. Scott was cutting wood. Myra felt a hot rage rising from her abdomen up through her chest and finally reaching her throat. The children would be home at 2:30 p.m. Scott would let them play outside unattended. Then Elizabeth would come home and Scott would leave to teach his Monday evening class.

Myra watched the children get off the school bus and go inside. After 30 minutes, they were back outside in their raggedy play clothes, pretending their swing set was a fort and fighting over sticks. When Evelyn started crying, Scott stuck his head outside and ordered both of them back in.

Like a banshee on fire, Myra stormed outside and began pulling up each of the tulips with her bare hands. It felt wonderful. She pulled them out in fistfuls with huge tugs that strained her bicep muscles. She clawed at the dirt like an animal and started to laugh. She could hear Riley’s voice saying to Evelyn, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Once she had pulled each and every one of the red tulips from the ground, she continued to tear them apart into tiny little pieces. She heard the sound of her own children talking.

“What are you doing, Mama?”

Tears streamed down Myra’s face. It had taken only five minutes, but she had done it. She had demolished her beautiful garden.

She stood and dusted the last bits of stem from her clothing. There would be dirt under her fingernails for days.

As she walked inside, a strange calmness came over her. Something was different about today. She had forgotten to take her medicine.

Ninety minutes later, Elizabeth came home. Myra watched as she pulled into the garage. A short time later, Scott’s car pulled out. Myra stared at the clock for exactly five minutes.

The doorbell rang just as Elizabeth had finished cleaning up the wrappers Riley and Evelyn had left on the floor from their after-school snack. She was just about to start dinner.

She opened the door, but before her mind could register that Myra was standing in front of her, the older woman had dumped an armful of tattered red tulips and dirt all over her doorstep. Some of the petals covered her shoes.

A feeling of terror filled Elizabeth as she took in Myra’s wiry, disheveled gray hair, her rumpled, dirt-stained shirt and tear-streaked face.

“Your children!” Myra screamed. “You people are trash and you have no manners. For three years I’ve put up with your noises, your trespassing, your stupid, ignorant friends with the tattoos and the discs in their ears who sell coffee for a living and pretend to be artists. But I will not stand for destruction of property. You will pay to replace these.”

Elizabeth took a step back.

“I’m sorry. I don’t …”

“I looked out my window today and saw your two sniveling brats tearing out my flowers and throwing them at each other. My husband was cremated and his ashes are in that garden,” Myra screamed before bursting into tears.

Elizabeth’s eyes were wide. Her hand covered her mouth. Myra had never before seen this cynical young woman look so shocked.

“Myra, I can’t believe … I’m so sorry. We’ll certainly pay …”

“Six hundred dollars,” Myra demanded. “I want $600 by the end of the month. And the next time, I’ll call the police.” She turned and walked away.

She stalked back home, feeling vindicated. This generation of parents didn’t believe in spanking, did they? And that was probably one of many reasons why the world was in a steep state of decline.

Myra’s ex-husband was far from dead. He’d taken his generous pension and gone to Palm Springs a decade ago.

Riley and Evelyn adamantly denied their mother’s accusations, but Elizabeth didn’t really believe them. She’d seen the way they played with her own flowers and all of her other things. Nothing was sacred. Riley and Evelyn thought that if you broke something, you just went to the store and got another. They thought that if someone died, that person went to Heaven and you would get to see them later. In their world, everything would always be alright in the end, and it didn’t hurt to have a little fun with someone else’s precious things. Mommy didn’t need to worry about a piece of jewelry. You could get a shiny new ring for a quarter.

Elizabeth told Riley and Evelyn they were not allowed to play in the back yard for three days. She forbade them from ever going near Myra’s property again. And finally, she told them not to speak a word of the incident to their father.

Elizabeth knew how Scott felt about Myra. If he found out she’d accused the children of trespassing and destruction of property, he would likely take their word about what happened and get into a full-blown legal battle over the incident, just out of spite. No, Elizabeth decided, it would be much cheaper and easier just to pay Myra the $600 and move on.

Just as Elizabeth was herding the children upstairs to begin the bedtime routine, Scott’s mother called from England.

“I’m just so sorry I forgot to call yesterday,” she said. “But by the time I remembered, it was too late. You all would have been asleep. Did she get my card?”

“Not yet,” Elizabeth said, hurrying to get off the phone. As always, she was physically and mentally exhausted, and she still needed to do a load of laundry so Riley would have clean pants for tomorrow.

She was folding when Scott came home.

He opened a beer and sat down, turning on the television. She finished folding, went into the kitchen and started loading cups in the dishwasher. Scott followed her in.

“Are you replacing any light fixtures this weekend?” she asked him.

“Huh?” he asked.

“Mowing anyone’s lawn?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I need an extra $600 this month. Property tax bill,” she said.

“I can give it to you Sunday,” Scott replied. “I’m putting in a fence for Mrs. Printz this weekend.”

Very few of Scott and Elizabeth’s neighbors’ children lived nearby, so many of them relied on Scott to do simple repairs in their homes. He’d left the house at 10 p.m. before after receiving an emergency phone call from a neighbor about a dangling light fixture. Not many people knew their way around a toolbox like Scott did. And he was cheap. He charged $20 an hour and would do small things like replace a doorknob, while most of the local contractors couldn’t be bothered for less than $1,500.

Elizabeth stared out the kitchen window into the darkness.

“What would it cost me to have you put a fence in our yard? We need one bad. They’ve been going into Myra’s yard,” she said, referring to Riley and Evelyn.

Scott put his arm around her waist.

“It would take me a long time,” he said. “It would cost you a lot.”

The following week, after Scott deposited the money he’d earned putting in Mrs. Printz’s fence, Elizabeth wrote Myra a check for $600. She rang Myra’s doorbell and when she answered, handed her the envelope.

“Keep your kids out of my yard,” Myra said.

“I am sorry,” Elizabeth said, but the shock had gone out of her now and she was beginning to wonder whether $600 was too much for a patch of tulips.

She turned and walked back home.

On Mother’s Day, Elizabeth had just finished cleaning up after breakfast when Judy called. Elizabeth was about to load her family into the van and go to the Garden Faire, where she would buy some new flowers to plant along the fence Scott was installing in their back yard.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Judy said. “Do you have plans?”

“Yes, Mother. We’re going to the Garden Faire to buy some flowers. What about you?”

“Larry and I are going to drive to the beach,” Judy said. “We’re staying there tonight. There’s a seminar I want to go to tomorrow.”

“Wonderful,” Elizabeth replied. “Did you get my card?”

Minutes later, Elizabeth watched Myra’s house as she and Scott drove by. There was a strange-looking banner hanging from Myra’s porch. It was a picture of a scroll. In large, ancient-looking script, it read, “Tend Your Own Garden.” There were black and red roses down the sides.

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