Nora kept her glasses perched on the end of her nose. She made sure not to miss the annotations of life. And today, the annotation before her read, “Full sun. 77 days to maturity.”
The package of tomato seeds went into her cart. Nora didn’t know anything about patio gardening, but she wasn’t about accruing boredom with time on her hands. Aisle 8 had the 24“container and bag soil mix she needed. The internet had the video instructions to create a patio container garden:
“You need the right container: either 18” or 24”
“You need 6-8 hours of sun daily.”
“You must use the proper soil. Never use garden soil or landscape soil. Always use bag soil mix for vegetables.”
“You will need to fertilize every 10-14 days. The fertilizer must contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.”
“Start the seedlings 6-8 weeks before spring thaw, before transplanting outside.”
“After transplanting, stake the seedling plant. There will be plenty of foliage and growing tomatoes will weigh things down.”
When spring thaw came to the earth around her patio, Nora planted her starter. The tomato seedling was 3 inches tall with what the video called “true leaves”. Nora stuck it in the center of the 24-inch container, then she staked it. She watered it. It looked dwarfed in the mass of black mud but green leaves always looked promising. Tired, she put away her trowel and sat down in her patio chair.
It was then that she could see a neighbor woman across the apartment complex driveway opening her patio door. The woman was wrapped in a floral housecoat. She crossed her arms to hold her housecoat closed in the breeze. Nora noticed that the woman was glaring at the seedling container. Nora stared back wondering what the woman was wondering. What was her neighbor’s fascination with her tomato plant? After a minute the neighbor went back inside. A TV could be heard when she opened the door.
“If you give me some tomatoes little one, I’ll give her some.” Nora coaxed the tomato plant.
Nora was a loner and she was OK with that after ten years. She began living more and more alone after being divorced. The divorce, she was told, was meant to achieve another’s happiness. Over time Nora’s older children moved out to begin their separate lives. She was happy for them.
Nora was used to ‘living in her head’. A former high school physics teacher, Nora now filled her days reading journals and doing projects that interested her. When Nora retired from her teaching position, her daily associations ended. Yet, ‘living in your head’ and talking to yourself came to a loner naturally. But finding close friends did not come naturally.
In that void, Nora filled her life with regimen. Nora attended church where she saw “the regulars” as she called them. She shopped at the same grocery store each week and saw the checkout “regulars”. On Saturday mornings, she attended Bismarck café and saw those “regulars”. Nora’s life was a routine of brief time-place associations and nothing more. She wondered what a 3-D association would look like, glasses or no glasses.
Nora knew that a close friendship would be a way to mitigate extreme loner-ness. She had an aunt that lived alone with cats and saw no one except for the Preachers on the TV. Nora wasn’t one to be detached from others. She knew she needed space to think and also close friends to share that space.
Never thinking of herself as lonely, Nora just felt the absence of interaction – opposite and equal interaction. She desired dialog where kidding each other and push back were OK. She wasn’t looking for a romantic relationship. Besides, she figured true friendship was a greater gift than romantic love. She saw herself spending time with male or female friends and then going home at night to her bed.
She remembered her childhood friendships. Feeling alive together was all that mattered. Nora and her friends would drive fast with the car windows open and the music loud and the feeling of life streaming through her car. Motion made her feel alive and the faster life came at her the better. Swimming laps at the health club now just wasn’t the same.
After 77 days, large red fruit was ready to be harvested from the container garden. Nora cut off one of the tomatoes to sample. She washed it and sliced it. She made a BLT sandwich and said, “Perfect!”
Now it was time to visit her neighbor and to bring her some tomatoes. Now, too, she would find out why this woman stared over at the plant all the time.
Nora approached the neighbor’s patio. The woman was in her housecoat and staring back in the direction of Nora’s patio. The woman ignored Nora completely.
“Hi,” Nora put one foot on the concrete patio.
“Oh, hi,” the woman said while her eyes outlined Nora’s form.
“I brought you some of my home-grown tomatoes. Would you like them?”
“Why, yes indeedy!” The woman, holding her housecoat closed, reached her left hand out.
Nora reached over and placed the bag’s handle around the woman’s hand. The woman’s good-humored response gave Nora the feeling that maybe they could be friends.
“I’m Nora.” After Nora said this she watched the woman’s dark eyes roll back and forth in the top of their sockets.
“I’m May. Nice to meet you. Do you live nearby, Nora?”
“Yes, I live right over there in that apartment.” Nora began to point and then pulled her arm down.
“Can you take my hand and point it in that direction?” May asked. “Then I’ll get my bearings.”
“Sure.” Nora turned May’s arm in the direction of her apartment. Nora pointed her index finger and Nora directed the finger.
“Yes, over there, across the driveway.” Nora said.
“Thank you.” May brought her arm down. “I’m still getting my bearings. What do you do, Nora?”
“I am…I was a high school physics teacher. I am retired and live alone.”
“I never studied physics. I did have an English teacher who taught grammatical structure.” May chuckled. “She outlined it on the blackboard. I heard her pulling the chalk across the black board. It made my skin crawl. She had me sitting right at the front of the class so that I could hear everything. I just couldn’t picture in my mind, though, what it was she was trying to convey. Nouns and verbs…the whole shebang came together in my mouth when I needed them, though. And thankfully when the teacher had me recite poetry to the class.”
May’s black eyes rolled upward, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’. I remember the rest of Hopkin’s poem to this day.
“What about you?” May looked over to Nora. ‘What have you been doing?’
“I am a retired but I don’t like the word ‘retired’. I’m not out to pasture, I’m out of students and out of kids, at least until my grandchildren come along. My four kids are all grown and moved out. I turn 65 this year, but only on paper. “
May laughed. “OK, how did you get to liking physics?” May asked.
“I always liked knowing how things worked. I got this from my father. He was always amazed at how things worked, how they came together. He was a high school math teacher. He taught me trig and calc. And, he would always quote G.K. Chesterton, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders,” whenever I balked at my homework.
“My daddy was a mailman who read poetry to us kids, you know, like Langston Hughes: “Help me to shatter this darkness, To smash this night, To break this shadow, Into a thousand lights of sun, Into a thousand whirling dreams, Of sun!”
I’m not out to pasture either, Nora. I am out of place. I’m from Mississippi. I came up here to be with my daughter after her husband Roy died in a work accident. An I-beam fell came off a crane hook. It came right down on his head. His skull was crushed.
When it happened Roy and my daughter had just had a child. You’ll have to meet my granddaughter, Magnolia. My daughter was so broken up that I just had to come up and be with her.”
“I am so sorry to hear about Roy. Why do things like this happen to good people?” Nora put her hand on May’s arm.”
May’s black eyes searched back and forth. “You just don’t see things like that coming at you.”
There was a long silence. Then, Nora spoke.
“May, these are fresh tomatoes from my container garden.”
“Container garden? I’ve heard of them. Thank you for these. Tell me about this container garden.”
Nora explained to May the details and the waiting and the wondering if the tomatoes were going to make it. And then Nora said, “If you like I can help you set one up on your patio.’
“I think that would be fine. I love fresh tomatoes. You know, I miss my home in Mississippi. I miss the garden. I miss the smell of the magnolias. I come outside when I can and face that away.” May pointed in the direction of Nora’s patio.
“From that direction comes the smell of earth being dug, of new construction and of flowers.”
May looked up to the sky and spoke in measured tones, ‘And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’.
May looked over to Nora. “If you would help me set up a container garden, with whatever will grow this time of year – vegetables, herbs, flowers – then, I must give you something in return. I’d ask you to teach me physics, too, but I have an aversion to the sound of chalkboards.” They both laughed.
“Well, I don’t hear much poetry these days.” Nora said. “In fact, I read technical journals on physics. Can you teach me some poetry?”
“I think we have a deal.”
From that day forward, Nora and May spent many hours together chatting on a patio. As they conversed they created a container garden together with Magnolia’s help. Over coffee May recited poetry. Life was coming back around and not just in the container garden.
On any given summer day, if one were riding along on highway 103, one would see Nora driving and May in the passenger seat speeding past you with their windows open and the music loud.
© J. Ann Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved