Grow Write Guild: Eighteen

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The following is my response to the first prompt. It isn’t about my first plant. I decided to go in another direction because I have already written about my first plant and didn’t have anything further to say. Instead, I jumped ahead several years to another time in my life when the impulse to grow things appeared unexpectedly. There was actually another time before this, but this is the story that came to mind and I went with it. I’m feeling a little nervous about posting this because I wrote it in one go last night (with a few edits and a break for dinner) so it’s probably full of errors.

Grow Write Guild Prompt #1: Write about your first plant.

Eighteen

In my eighteenth year I moved away from my hometown in order to put some healthy distance between my childhood and the adult life I hoped to make going forward. My new life started out scary, but promising. I enrolled in a local high school so that I could finish out grade 13 and obtain the credits I needed in order to attend university the following fall. I found an apartment, and for the first time in my life got a taste for the true meaning of the word home. I acquired a retail position at a dollar store that was just opening up (I took the job without knowing what a dollar store was!) and soon found myself experiencing another personal first: the insane inner workings and anthropological weirdness that is mall culture.

I learned a lot of new things at this job. I learned how to stock shelves, order items, create schedules, and manage a store. I also learned about people. I have always been a people watcher, a child with a need to understand why the people in my life were, well, so f*cking crazy. But there is a difference between observing the human condition from a distance and confronting the honesty and vulnerability that reveals itself clearly from inside a person’s eyes. I was out on my own now, a burgeoning adult entering the adult world, and in a way, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and looking directly at people for the first time. I did not like what I saw. I had always wrongly assumed — probably out of a need for self-preservation — that the pain and world-weariness I saw in my neighbors did not exist beyond our subdivision’s boundaries, and certainly — no, definitely — not outside of the town. It would be another decade still before I could look strangers directly in the eye without flinching.

But this is not what I meant to tell you. It seems that I never mean to tell you the things that I eventually reveal. My own vulnerability pours out from my fingers; rarely my face.


An actual store sign from my dollar store experience. Yeah, I save everything. I have so many crazy stories from the months I worked at that store… I could write a book.

The town I grew up in had a Kresge’s. It is because of this store that I have a lifelong fondness for the North American department store with a built-in lunch counter. Woolco, Woolworth, old school Kmart: I feel a comfortable, nostalgic familiarity in the aisles of this type of shop. The mall I worked in had such a store affixed to the right side, directly next to the entrance. Perhaps it was my general discomfort with all things mallish, or perhaps it was because my world had been upended and I had a need for warmth wherever I could find it, but when headed in to work a shift, I always approached the mall by a twisty trail through the department store rather than the direct route through the main doors. And I lingered. I took in the sights and smells of the lunch counter. The ladies in their uniforms; the regulars hunched over puffy vinyl stools, a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. The constant clatter of dishware filling the space, registers counting out change in agreement. A muzak version of “More Than a Feeling” tinkling over the PA system, and just underneath it all, if you listened carefully, the long drawn out pfffffff of vinyl as one patron stood up and another sat down in their place.

I followed a winding, illuminated pathway that took me past white metal shelves stocked with dusty bottles of Wet and Wild nail polish and racks of discoloured postcards featuring long-since-abandoned tourist attractions and forgotten destinations. Thinking on it now, I wonder if my draw to these sorts of stores is entirely down to the lost banal treasures they hold: accidental museums of faded, ordinary glory.

It was on this path that I found them. Here, set to the side of the walkway, sat a feeble display of 4” plastic pots bursting with sprays of greenery. Two bucks a pop. They were nothing special, just your average everyday tropicals; the sort you’d find in doctor’s offices and gift baskets.

Happy Birthday Marie!

“Get Well Soon Barbara! Love from the girls at Bingo!

I don’t know why I had to have them. It started with a peace lily and a rubbery jade. I took them home and placed them on an empty shelf. The next time I walked by I paused on a rubber tree with big, leathery leaves. It came home with me too. It continued like this, on and on, a new plant on the shelf every few days. I did not think about it much. I was a child of the seventies and while I did not grow up in a house full of plants, I can’t think of a single, functional family home that didn’t have a few. Even homes where the parents were falling down drunks had a ficus or something palm-like shoved into the corner of the living room. Here is your shag rug. Here is your giant, bevel-edged floor model television covered in doilies on top of which sit an assortment of slapdash ashtrays and figurines that mom painted in ceramics class (every other Wednesday night at 7 in the church basement on Elm Street). And in the window, one or two variegated spider plants hanging from macramé slings. I got myself one of those too, (the plant, not the macramé). That and a burgundy and silver striped wandering jew thanks to a caring biology teacher who clipped them for me from plants that hung in the classroom.

No, it didn’t take me long to figure out the magic in making new plants for free. And then I was off. Soon everything was a potential plant in waiting. I stuck the seeds cut from bell peppers and other produce into little pots of soil and set them on the kitchen windowsill. I combed the yard around my apartment building, curious about the bulbs that the squirrels found so appealing (they were Lily-of-the-Valley). I planted a bag of papery onion sets in the deep shade (no surprise, they rotted) and tried to root raspberry canes at the edge of the parking lot next to the communal garbage cans. At least I had enough sense to put those in the sun! I never asked myself where this impulse to make things grow had come from or why I was doing it.

And then I stopped. I took it up again a few months later in a lonely college dorm room. And then I stopped and started again two more times before it became as commonplace as breathing and I finally paused long enough to ask myself, “But why?


The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who love to garden. Everyone is welcome to participate! Click over to the Grow Write Guild FAQ to learn more about it.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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30 thoughts on “Grow Write Guild: Eighteen

  1. Wow! Your writing just swept me up and took me away. You have to write more and I know I have to read it. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Whoa….you took me back to a very similar time in my life. And I can almost smell the smell of the Woolco in my local dumpy little mall.

    And I remember taking pity in plants I’d see at Woolco or the grocery store and bringing them home to save them. :-)

    Le sigh… Lots of memories flooding back..

  3. “I have so many crazy stories from the months I worked at that store… I could write a book.”
    Looking forward to reading the NY Times bestseller–”THE SILVER DOLLAR”

    • I have lived all kinds of interesting stories — enough for several books. The tricky part is writing them! So many fascinating characters came into that store, you would not believe…

  4. I moved out when I was 18 too – dropped out of grade 13 and got a minimum wage job too. Moved into my own apartment, but mine didn’t have WINDOWS. So, no plants. I ended up going back to high school to finish up after a while of that! :)

    • I actually left a year before at 17 but later decided to leave that town entirely. It was very liberating to go to a new place. Funny how they don’t have grade 13 now. I think it was helpful to have an extra year of public education.

  5. Awesome. I grew up in a small town in the 70s and for years, no matter where I was, I was drawn to department store lunch counters. When I moved to small-town Quebec and had to frequently pass through the Quebec City bus station, I always stopped at the … I think it was a Kmart… to have a “pomme en cage” (apple wrapped in pastry with caramel sauce). I’d never had a “pomme en cage” before, but that lunch counter felt like home.

  6. Thanks Gayla – moving away far from ‘home’ to put distance between childhood and adult life struck a particular chord with me.

  7. Gayla, you are truly an amazing writer whether or not you are writing about plants. I have enjoyed some of your posts(from quite awhile back) about your childhood and family lineage and still hope there is a book to come from these stories. The above is priceless. I was just sharing a Woolco story the other day with someone too young to have any idea what I was talking about. But, oh, a grilled cheese sandwich at that lunch counter… and I was right there with you for the white metal shelves and dusty bric and brac and the plants. My grandmother had a small nation of African Violets in her apartment and I always thought she was so great to rescue them from the lifeless aisles of the Woolco. Thanks for sharing this piece.

  8. The shag carpet and macrame plant hangers makes me picture my grade school best friend’s house. My parents weren’t hip enough for such things. They only had one ashtray in the house – which never made sense to me, because they wouldn’t let anyone smoke in the house. Anyway … your writing really brought some memories of the seventies to the surface.

  9. I always like the girls who worked in the Dollar Shops and The Farmers Market here in Hamilton they have a nice way of making my day go smooth.

  10. I thank you for posting this. I am trying to flesh out my own story of “why?” on gardening and the caring for plant life. I find it is something that is quite ongoing and at times uncomfortable: the kind of experience that is about coming to terms with where you come from, and who you are inside, and what you want from life.

  11. Interesting story.I started getting heavy into anything that will grow while I was pregnant, up to till then plants came to me to die. I can’t explain it other than one day I just started caring about them. Gardening has gotten me through stress and sadness as I’m happiest when my hands are in the dirt.I marvel at the way rain settles in a succulent or the unfolding leaves of a fern. Simply beautiful.I am a plant crazed addict every spring and then slowly settle into a comatose state of plant euphoria which carries me into the fall. I even love all the bees that swirl around me as I garden. Sweetness.

  12. Hi Gayla,

    A long ago, I stumbled upon your table at the Union Square Green Market in NYC. I was on my lunch break from a job that sounds similar to your dollar store job, and I think you were promoting your first book. I started asking you pretty banal questions because you looked like an ex-punk who was into gardening, and I just wanted to talk to you even though I had nothing to say. And I wanted the popsicle stick plant labels that you were giving away. I had just started growing basil and mint in recycled tin cans, and after talking to you, I felt compelled to expand. I was fresh out of school, and was juggling very low paying jobs while living in a tiny apartment in Chelsea. Collecting small pots of plants from the vendors at the Green Market was my limited luxury. Reading your story reminded of that time.

    For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on turning a shady, ramshackle weed jungle/slug farm of a yard in to a garden, and now I spend almost every spare moment there- and from time to time, I do ask myself why. But I think this could be one of my reasons: this year, I saw the columbines that I sowed 2 ~ 3 years ago finally bloom, and hollyhocks are about to bloom for the first time since sowing around the same time as the columbines.

    I’ve always been interested in plants, but I wonder if I had been as motivated if I hadn’t stumbled upon your table that day. I plan on catching up with the writing prompts. But here’s a long over due hello. And I can’t believe no one has commented about your pictures! They’re as fantastic as your story.

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