Growing Flowers And Fathers

Amy Dickinson, 2008, Chicago i i

Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated advice column, "Ask Amy." Her memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them was published this spring. Courtesy of Amy Dickinson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Amy Dickinson
Amy Dickinson, 2008, Chicago

Amy Dickinson, 2008, Chicago

Courtesy of Amy Dickinson
A  photo of the Dickinson family from 1963.

A photo of the Dickinson family from 1963. Courtesy of Amy Dickinson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Amy Dickinson

I'm the worst kind of gardener — passionate, but without skill or knowledge and often disappointed that my efforts yield nothing like those tidy cottage gardens in the magazines.

Like a women who goes into Neiman Marcus to buy eyeliner and comes home with an evening gown, I return from a trip to buy plants realizing that my ambitions are bigger — much bigger — than my trowel.

Because of this, gardening for me tends to be a joyless activity where I mutter to myself and silently whine about my own failings.

My thoughts are as jumbled, messy and unkempt as my shady back yard.

I constantly search for meaning and metaphor in the planting and almost never find it.

Lately I've been thinking about my father. I inherited his eyebrows, along with his unfortunate tendency never to finish things.

He was a dairy farmer who optimistically started and never completed various hare-brained projects. Our barnyard was littered with old vehicles and project castoffs, including an old oil tank as big as a double-wide trailer that lay rusting in the pasture during most of my childhood.

The only thing my dad ever really finished was his marriage to my mother, and then a bunch of other marriages.

I didn't see my old man for many years, but then gradually, I started catching up with him. He sort of made himself inevitable and unavoidable. He kept turning up on my porch. He'd stand there like a fern until I let him in. He'd stay for a few minutes and then be gone again.

Last time I saw him was a few months ago. We had lunch at a diner. He's a broad-shouldered 80-year-old married to his fifth wife. He's hard of hearing, which is fine, because he never really pays attention anyway.

One time I asked him about metaphors. True to form, he said, "I don't see things as metaphors for other things."

But I do.

And I finally found one in my aimless gardening.

Like my father, my garden will surprise me by its hardiness, despite my neglect.

Like my garden, my relationship with my old man will be unruly, unregulated, suspenseful and profoundly less-than-perfect.

As I finished planting my annuals last weekend, I figured something out.

A true gardener improvises around imperfections, just like a good daughter.

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