I never met the previous owner of my apartment in Cleveland Park, but she left two plastic planters of crusty dirt and dead marigolds on the windowsills and taped a note to the kitchen counter. “The windows get a lot of sun in the morning,” she wrote. “Marigolds do well.”
It was May 2005, and I had just moved to DC from Boston. Marigolds are summer annuals—the ones in the planters must have been dead for six months at least. They had turned to straw. I threw them into a dumpster in the driveway, washed out the planters, and drove to the nearest nursery.
I hadn’t visited a nursery since the early 1990s, when I was married and lived in a house with a yard in Green Bay, Wisconsin. But like churches and football stadiums, nurseries are universal and unchanging. The smell of plants and wet soil, filtered light through the domed roof, shelves of flowering plants in plastic containers—all brought back memories of the flowers, vegetables, and herbs I’d grown in our yard.
There was an entire shelf of marigolds, but their prim yellow bonnets had always struck me as precious. I bought petunias instead—one bright-pink six-pack and another much paler, almost salmon.
Leaving the parking lot with the flowers and potting soil in my car, I almost expected to be on Webster Avenue in Green Bay, where the nursery and the grocery store used to be side by side around the corner from my house. In Wisconsin, though, my trunk would have been packed with plants and I wouldn’t have bought soil in an eight-quart bag.
I had started my garden in Green Bay by hiring a guy with a rototiller to dig up the back yard. I ordered a truckload of topsoil from a landscaping company, had it dumped in the driveway, and moved it one wheelbarrow load at a time to the vegetable plot, the flower garden, and the herb patch. The substance I moved so laboriously was called ground, as in “I’m calling to order some ground.”
The window boxes represented a totally different kind of gardening, and the bag of potting soil made me nervous. I was abysmal with houseplants. I had drowned and parched them in turn, placed them too close to the window or too far away. Not one had lasted a year. But petunias in window boxes turned out to be as hardy as the zucchini I used to grow. They loved the bright light in the east-facing windows of my third-floor apartment, and my old strategy for the garden—when in doubt, water—worked for them even though it had caused the demise of many a houseplant.
All over my new neighborhood, I saw huge, colorful clusters of petunias, annuals I associated with the garden my mother tended during my childhood in Japan. Every morning, I ran to National Cathedral, circled its terraced gardens, jogged down the hill into the hazy green canopy of Rock Creek Park, and followed one of the winding paths through the National Zoo to the row of cherry trees across the street from its gate. Along the way, I recognized other trees and flowers from Japan: the blue hydrangeas my mother had loved, the small maples whose leaves turned red in early summer, the Japanese laurel with leaves spotted yellow.
After 22 years in the Midwest and six in the Northeast, I realized I was living once again in the climate zone of my childhood.
• • •
My mother planted a flower garden every spring in front of our apartment in Ashiya, a suburb of Kobe where our family lived in the 1960s. Her sweet peas climbed a lattice of bamboo sticks and cotton twine to the bottom of our balcony and wound their way up the railing. By June, they were so thick that we could hardly see through the brass bars of the railing. When the vines reached the handrail, they doubled back down and began to produce seed pods that resembled miniature snow peas.
In the fall, my mother collected the seeds in small white envelopes she kept inside a tin canister for the next year. She let the other annuals die out and replaced them every spring. I think she was partial to the sweet peas because they climbed the lattice she’d made for them and bloomed on the balcony where we sat on breezy afternoons. Like the sparrows who ate the bread crumbs we scattered under the balcony chairs, they were unafraid and gregarious—eager, even, to be near us.
My mother planted only annuals because the apartment was meant to be a temporary home. Our building had 32 rental units occupied by young families like ours who were saving to buy a house. My mother had some of the women over to tea every week, and in late summer she would send them home with zinnias, snapdragons, and sunflowers from her garden. Everyone marveled at the flowers she got out of a patch no larger than eight by ten yards.
When we moved into a house of our own in 1967, my mother had ten times as much space for gardening. She could finally cultivate perennials and bulbs that would come back every spring with more flowers. All around the house she planted roses, hydrangeas, forsythias, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips. My grandmother, who lived in the country, divided the peonies and irises from her garden and brought them on the train in plastic bags of black dirt and wet roots tucked into her suitcase.
I was ten years old, too young to know that 100 acres of perennials couldn’t have saved my mother from her unhappiness. She must have hoped that the new house would entice my father to spend more time at home. Instead we seldom saw him, and his numerous girlfriends started calling every night.
• • •
In 1969, the spring after my mother’s suicide, the yellow roses she had coaxed to twine around the garden gate began to bloom. My grandmother’s peonies raised their blurry pink fists under our living-room windows.
The woman who moved into our house—she and my father would be married within a year—hated being surrounded by my mother’s things. She threw out the tapestries my mother had embroidered, but she couldn’t rip every plant out of the garden, so we had to move. The house my stepmother chose had a patch of grass and a few shrubs pruned by a professional gardener.
My stepmother told me that my mother had been a failure as a wife and mother. Maybe she believed she was smarter than my mother had been. When my father started seeing his other girlfriends again, my stepmother threatened to leave him and blamed me. I made her miserable, she claimed, by talking back to her. She sat clutching the handle of the suitcase she’d packed, while my father begged her to stay and slapped my face to demonstrate his love to her.
I wanted to show everyone I was far from all right, but aside from neglecting my homework or talking back to teachers, I couldn’t imagine what I would do to get into trouble. I attended a private girls’ school where wearing jeans to class or buying food from a street vendor—instead of at a proper cafe or bakery—was everyone’s idea of rebellion. Not counting my mother, I didn’t know anyone who had done serious harm to herself or her family. Besides, it was pointless to ruin my own life to spite my mother when she was already dead.
Being raised with all those flowers must have diminished my capacity for rage and self-destruction. No matter how angry I felt on the surface, there was always a core of cool logic underneath, as though my heart were made from those wet black roots my grandmother had dug up from her garden—a homely thing cultivated to survive.
In 1977, I left to study writing at a small college in Illinois, knowing I’d never move back to Japan.
• • •
In July 2005, the petunias I’d planted in Cleveland Park were spilling out of the window boxes, trailing their pink flowers down the brick wall of my building. One morning, I heard a loud buzz—the sound a minibike might make starting up—while I was clipping the blossoms that had faded. A tiny stream of air, a micro-breeze, blew across the back of my hand. The next moment, a hummingbird and I were face to face, with only a few inches between us. His ruby throat at eye level, he hovered upright with his wings beating, like a swimmer treading water. After five, six seconds, he flew backward, plunged down to the driveway, and disappeared. For the rest of the summer, I noticed hummingbirds—male and female, though never together—sipping nectar from the petunias in the early morning and at dusk.
Hummingbirds don’t build their nests, raise their young, or migrate as pairs. The male establishes his feeding territory, mates with several females, and takes off for the birds’ wintering grounds in Mexico or Central America. The first male I saw in July most likely left the area in early August and was replaced by others who were flying through. Not a single male hummingbird came to my window after early September, but a female lingered into October. With her white breast and slim body, she reminded me of a fish. In the last few weeks, she was at the flowers several times a day, gaining weight for the long migration and looking, finally, more like a bird. The last day I saw her was October 4.