our Mom gardened. Where I watched my mother blossom, growing rhubarb, squashes, strawberries, keeping chickens, raising calves, feeding everyone, and always impressing me because she knew the names of flowers. Ramona is where I awoke to nature. Nature. In the small house, where I walked to kindergarten, and to Woodward's, the feed and tack store. The house where we had bunnies, who had bunnies, where I made mud pies and baked them in a scrapped oven, planted sunflowers, bought Chick-o-sticks and candy cigarettes at the ReXall on Main and 7th Street. When we moved to the house off Highway 67, there was room for chickens, and those calves, and exploring out back, up into scrub, oaks, and granite boulders. There was room to run with a kite, to chase a dog, and get dirty, to eat from the garden, and stalk rabbits, to ride the Big Wheel down the rain rutted trail that dropped down, at a wild grade, for small, adventurous, daring children. We moved from this home to the red house with the big trees, a basement, room for a pony, and cats, where we could coax the toads to climb out of their holes, find horny toads, and trap-door spiders, where bats got into an attic crawl space, and even the grown-ups wanted to sit on the swings... the same swings that inspired me to ask for a big swing of our own, here at our Bird House. Next to my bed was a window that popped open, and had no screen, and within reach were the branches of a large shrub that grew all the way up to that second floor. I nibbled on the berries, whatever they were, that grew on the bush. They were garnet red, crisp on the outside and sort of spongy and pale inside. They were only slightly sweet. (Wow. The Internet is amazing. I only had to do a few rounds of searching to discover what I was eating. No one else ate them, and I was almost secretive about them, and never sure what they were. If only I'd known, because I think they were lilly pilly berries, and how absoultely magical is the name "lilly pilly"?) I don't think we lived there even two years, yet my mind is brimming with memories, like something that could fill chapters of a novel. Maybe it's because those were what they call "formative years," when I was six, when we had a full house, when I was impressionable, and aware, when both good moments, and disturbing events, were vivid. When we had to move, I was devastated.
The house in Oceanside, and the time there, was maybe the furthest I ever felt from nature, from beauty. My Mom worked in Escondido, and in Barrio Logan... commutes that I can hardly fathom, now. It was not an easy time, and some very traumatic things happened while we lived there, when I walked home from school through a SWAT event, and my friends were held hostage, and my next-door neighbor had bullet holes through her house, and an injured dog, when the home and family we shared a chain link fence with held a backyard memorial for their murdered son. This was when our father re-married, and didn't tell us, didn't invite us to the wedding. The best of those days were when we would visit cousins in Alhambra, or friends in Julian, or when the library truck would stop across the street.
Earth Day. I sat down to write about Earth Day, and I fixed on the idea that Nature is not a separate place from us. I have been seeing posts about going out into Nature, and getting away to Nature. I understand the expressions, and I know there's a difference between a greenspace or a garden strip planted up in a parking lot, and a National Park, or a truly wild space, where nothing is paved, or managed. But I have lived much of my life in spaces where nature is sectioned off, divided, minimal, and I like to think that I have learned to recognize nature in those small spaces, outside of preserves, and parks, to glean a connection and appreciation for Nature as everywhere, around us, even in us. Forests and deserts, protected spaces, where native plants and wildlife have room and habitual cycles, are wonderful, invaluable. But I know that we won't all have the chance to hike, and camp, to explore, and retreat to sacred places, where deer cross meadows, or no cars pass, and so I like to both protect large spaces, and care for small nature, too. And I think I learned this, or was at least influenced in this way, by my Mom, my Abuelas, by Handsome Eddie and Eileen, and by Genie.
When we moved from Oceanside to San Diego, to Apartment 2, I might have lost even more "natural space," but our Mom kept bringing us to the beaches, to tide pools, and beach-combing, to ocean swims, and exploring remote parts of the bay, where we could find sea urchins, and octipi. I remember times when we would count all of the coins we could find, for gas money, so we could get to the local mountains, so we could picnic in Dos Picos Park, fish at the pond, scramble around the trails, gather acorns, or visit Julian, and those wild spaces, with creeks, and trees, and good memories. She did all she could to give us wild spaces and freedom to move in them.
Behind Apartment 2, outside the gate of our little patio, was the patio of our neighbor, Genie. She was older. I can't say how much older, since I was only 8 or 9, maybe 10, and didn't have much perspective about such things. But she noticed me, or I noticed her. I don't remember. I do remember that she had white hair, and often wore shorts, and looked confident, like a person busy enjoying herself and happy about it. And at some point, I was invited in, and it's even possible I invited myself in, but I found myself in her apartment and seeing her paint easel, and petting her small white dog. I didn't know any women, her age that wore shorts, that painted at an easel, during the day, that was busy enjoying herself, and made time to talk about it, with me. And something else, she was gardening on that small patio, and I was astonished at it. The property manager had chased me off and scolded me, more than a few times, for picking flowers, for playing in the weight room, or hanging around where I didn't belong, for trying to climb a tree, and once for digging. So, I questioned Genie, incredulously, How can you garden here? I had this idea that there was no literal or figurative room to garden in an apartment, on a patio, no room, or permission, to dig. Plainly, and assuredly, she replied, "You can garden anywhere. Nature is everywhere, and you can have part in it, care for it." She introduced me to her plants, to her pots, and to moss rose. I most clearly remember the moss rose, and her explaining what a simple and gratifying plant it was.
She painted her flowers, too. And I was awestruck by the way she was engaged with beauty, seeing it, caring for it, even reproducing it in her art. I thought she was brilliant, and I felt akin to serenity, to calm, purposeful living, when I was around her. I wanted to observe more of this, and be in her influence. When I found out she was moving, I was almost as heartbroken as I felt leaving Weekend Villa Road for Oceanside. I would sit outside, on her patio and watch her pack. She gave me her painting of a geranium in a glass. A masterpiece, to my mind. I watched all of her things go into boxes, and felt so low, so aware of my limitations. How far is to Barstow? How would I ever see her again? How do you tell someone that you need them, that they are too significant to lose? I couldn't find the words. I asked her about Barstow, and she wrote her new address on a slip of paper. She was looking forward to the sun and warmth, to retirement, and new gardens. And that's when I realized that her patio garden was staying behind, and it shook me. How could she leave her garden? It felt doubly hard; it wasn't just me getting left behind, but the geraniums, and moss rose, too! I asked her, almost accusingly, What about your garden? How can you just leave it behind? The manager might throw it all away! She was always so composed, assured, and she replied, "They'll be fine. Don't worry. Nature finds a way." She was sure, but I had doubts. I was worried. I looked out my bedroom window, over her patio fence, and into her empty apartment, and I fixed on a plan.