Two posts in one day but this one has been a long time coming. I am just going to do it and then I will pace the house until my legs are tired and I will never sleep again.
The Front Yard
We call it the front yard for lack of a better term but it is quite unlike the other front yards of the houses that surround our townhouse complex or our old yard on Bunting Road. It is a vast expanse of patchy lawn that extends across the front of our block from #61 next door to The McVale’s down at the other end, divided by narrow walkways between every two doors.
I’m embarrassed and ashamed of the front yard. I’m ashamed to be one of the townhouse kids, although ours isn’t the worst of the area. I’m ashamed of my parents who are crass and loud. Their crazy spills out onto the lawn. No further ornamentation required. I’m ashamed of my mother, screeching across the greenery in her housecoat with last night’s broken Mohawk flopping over her face.
“I hit you with the fly swatter to keep from hurting my hand.”
I’m ashamed of my father, the loser; his desperation to be accepted by other losers is sickening.
“The problem is I’m a good guy, and good guys always finish last.”
And by extension I am ashamed of myself.
The front yard is our playground because the back yards are too small. We use it for sports and excessively aggressive games of Mother May I?, tag, and Red Rover. Someone comes by every once and a while to mow the grass, although I hardly notice or care unless it interrupts my play.
No one knows this but I like the sunny little garden underneath the front window best. There are plants, rocks, flowers, and the occasional insect to explore here. The flowers are generic and bland, but they’re alive. They are something different, a small world to discover. They tell the neighbors that we haven’t given up completely. Not yet. I can bring my miniature dolls outside and enact fantastical stories while pretending they are in a small landscape on another world. I like this little spot more than the dead backyard and when I’m feeling daring, I play out here in the open where I risk exposing my flights of fancy and private pretendings to strangers.
One day, men in trench coats arrive while I am engrossed in a storyline that involves walking my Strawberry Shortcake dolls through the sedums (the most otherworldly plants in the garden). The men scurry through the front door uninvited and catch my mother in her housecoat washing the laundry.
I keep playing but I know something isn’t right.
When I get up the courage to go inside I find the men pulling the house apart and my mother whimpering at the kitchen table. She blows her moist nose loudly into a giant wad of toilet paper and motions for me to come close. I stand next to her dutifully as she whispers instructions into my ear, “Get rid of those plants in the backyard.” I know exactly what she means (and why) without being told. I am too young to know. But I know. I know lots of things I shouldn’t know.
Outside, one of the men, an undercover officer, calls out to me from the bathroom window – “Hey, girl!” I run through the back gate with the wilting plants in my hands and my heart racing. I am panicking. I am hoping to find a place to stash the contraband. I have to get away. I have nowhere to go. I run to the edge of our block where a group of younger kids are playing. There is a small hole against the foundation of the last house and I toss the plants in there. Out of my hands! He is right behind me. He has seen me; he’s seen it all (and so has the neighborhood, my entire world), but I play pretend in my mind and I’m almost not there at all.
The policeman scoops the plants and leads me back to the house.
My heart is pounding. I am going to jail. He asks me what I am doing. I don’t know how to answer. I can’t speak. I’m half in my body and halfway to somewhere else. He asks me if I know what the plants are and I feign innocence. I tell him about the policeman that came to our school armed with a bulletin board decorated with tiny Baggies of dried leaves and small pills all tacked to it in orderly rows. I wanted to get close to that bulletin board to see if the little pills and specks of green were real, but even then I knew not to get too close to its contents or the policeman. Hold your head down and leave quietly. Do not be precocious. Do not let him look you in the eyes. Do not be smart. I tell him this truth within a lie and hope that I have fooled him.
The truth is that I’m a bad kid who knows too much. I can’t tell him that I know what it is because I’ve been watching my parents and their friends roll and smoke it for as long as I have had memories. I know I can’t tell him about my friend’s dad and how he pays us a few dollars to gingerly plant the teeniest seeds in small pots of soil or that I have watched beautiful seedlings emerge from these same pots underneath blinding lights in their basement. I love the pots. Later, I sneak downstairs alone to watch them. We spend the money (my best friend and I) on candy bars, popsicles, and soda and it would be unwise to let him know that I enjoyed it (the sweets and the planting). I can’t tell him that I was able to identify these same plants the very minute I spotted them coming up in our backyard or that I like the little plants, and took a special responsibility to their care almost immediately. I can’t let on that I know they are illegal and that I am intelligent enough to know what illegal means or that I understand the meaning of jail. I can see into his mind through his eyes and I know that he is looking down on me with pity – “One of those trash kids, just like her parents. Such a shame really.” – I know he thinks I am just the sort of kid who will end up in jail and what it means to be seen as that sort of kid.
I don’t want to be that sort of kid.
I know in my gut that no matter what, I will always be seen as that sort of kid.
I am ashamed because I like those little plants and I don’t think plants can be bad, although I fear them as equally as I delight in them. I know the cop thinks they are bad and the cops are the Law. And the Law is power. I am bad, too, because I am disobedient in the face of the power of the Law. I don’t believe what I’m supposed to believe. I don’t feel the way I am supposed to feel.
I deserve to go to jail because I knew what the plants were (a good kid wouldn’t know) and I liked them anyway.
Addendum: Before I lose my courage, I want to add some context or an afterward. When I wrote the above story, I tried to access my child-brain feelings about the experience, which are obviously a bit different than my adult ability to intellectualize and put things into greater context. Firstly, I still think that cannabis is a beautiful plant, that the war on drugs is BS, and I don’t cast any judgment on those who use it. I also don’t hold anything against my parents because they smoked weed or sold it. My stepfather never should have gone to jail and our family should not have been put through the trauma of having our place ripped apart and a shadow of shame cast over us for it. I do, however, hold against them the fact that they were the worst sort of parents for a myriad of other reasons.
For years people have been asking me about my background as a gardener. I have long felt that this was an important experience that shaped me (for better or for worse) in a way that is integral to who I am as a gardener, a garden writer, and beyond. The residual shame that is a result of my upbringing has been one major reason why I was never able to tell this story, but its omission felt too great. Years ago, when a camera crew was at my house shooting a documentary that delved into my past, I grappled with telling this story on camera. I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the words. And at the time I was struggling greatly with being an outsider, an uninvited guest to the gardening world that had crashed the party and long overstayed my due. A close friend said I’d have to tell it eventually, and she was right.
All gardeners have their Genesis story/stories. My first was a parsley plant that I grew in a styrofoam cup from seed as a part of a Sunday School lesson that I no longer recall. I can recall the most minute details about that plant though! This is my other Genesis story. The next stage. The one where I learned more about the hierarchical culture that we humans have shaped around plants. How we experience them ethnobotanically is fascinating to me now. I may never had come around to seeing plants in the way that I do without having had this experience. For that I am grateful, even if working through all of the baggage surrounding this stuff is a life-long work in progress that I often resent.
An Addendum to the Addendum: Whenever you tell a story based in real life experiences, you have to pick and choose the details that are used or not used in order to hone in on what you want to say and tell it well. Of course, within and beyond the story I told here is a bigger story of my childhood as a whole, the neighbourhood I grew up in, my parents and who they are/were…. In telling my story I left out most of the details related to how the plants got there in the first place, why we were searched, what happened afterward…. Those details detracted from the point and they are adult details. I wasn’t telling the story from an adult perspective so I left them out.
I debated whether or not to add some of those details here but since people have started writing about it, I thought I’d make it a little bit clearer for the sake of context. I’m not going to add anything more beyond this. I want it to just be what it is and not a complete retelling of my life story, an indictment of the war on drugs and how it has needlessly ruined lives, or a moral tale about the consequences of breaking the law. That is neither here nor there in the telling of this particular story.
Our backyard was a postage stamp of a thing that was mostly comprised of patio stones with a thin strip of “earth” along one side that was mostly in the shade. My parents were not gardeners or Marijuana growers. They were recreational pot users, that one day, happened to toss a couple of seeds that were in the bottom of the Baggie outside. And amazingly those seeds grew! This surprised us all, since nothing had ever successfully grown in that scraggy little patch of nothing. You see? There is another story in there about the resiliency of plants.
The police did not come to our house and tear it apart that day because of the plants that were forming in the backyard. By then they were probably only about a foot or so high at most. I doubt anyone noticed or cared. Knowing what I know now as a gardener, I very much doubt those plants would have yielded anything worth smoking or selling.
All of this took place in the early 80′s. The laws regarding Cannabis control have changed in Canada since then, although given the circumstances, I’m not sure if the results would have been different.