I grew up next to the 405 freeway in Long Beach, California, lulled to sleep each night by the drone of engines and helicopters, waking to rush-hour car horns every morning. When I was in elementary school, my mom would walk my brother and me past the brick-wall alley that separated our street from the steady stream of cars. The brick wall was massive, blocking the sun and the sky, and along the barrier ran a stretch of cracked, dry dirt that our mom always pointed out as we passed by. The road that separated the sidewalk and the dirt was barely used, except by cars that took wrong turns.
One day, mom woke my brother and me bright and early with a task and a palm full of seeds. “We’ll plant a secret garden,” she whispered. The Secret Garden was one of our favorite stories; my brother and I liked to run around the flower beds in our front yard and yell from behind our apple tree, “I’m in the garden!” pretending to be Mary Lennox and Colin Craven in all their youthful glee. “It will be a surprise for the neighborhood,” our mom said to us. “So don’t tell anyone.”
My brother and I giggled as we made our way over to the freeway plot. I remember our small hands, curled as if we were digging raccoons, ripping out long dandelion plants, picking rocks out of the earth and holding them in our palms like turquoise and diamonds. The first clang of our shovels onto the hard ground rang in our ears. The slumbering earth around us seemed to shiver, awaken, and eventually, breathe. After minutes of turning and tilling, we had a loamy plot we mixed with fresh manure.
I don’t remember every seed my mom attempted to plant, but slowly but surely our garden grew. Every day after school, my brother and I would water the seedlings, gazing in awe when yellow and purple flowers blossomed against the tall brick wall. They looked like tattoos or scrapbook stickers clumsily plastered on a concrete tower—less strategic than a Banksy creation, but in their own way just as political. My mom tended our secret garden well, and for a few months, the flowers added a subtle delicateness to the alley. I saw passersby pause in shock to admire the new addition.
the author as a child
Brown fu mes from the highway poured over the wall, and rain was scarce. Eventually the flowers wilted, thirsty weeds eroding the fragile roots. My brother and I mourned and asked what was to become of our garden.
“We can always plant again, when the weather is right,” Mom said.
But we never planted there again. Seasons came and went, and southern California descended deeper and deeper into drought. Years later, as I prepared to leave that little house in front of the 405 for college, we uprooted the apple tree that had fallen ill and watched our grass dry out. My parents divorced, and all four of us moved away to our own separate corners of the world.
My mother has always had a green thumb. She is descended from Michigan farmers on her mom’s side, Mexican avocado tree enthusiasts on her dad’s. She grew up in a mestizo household with her parents and five siblings. Money was tight, and she and her siblings planted a garden in the yard to supplement their meals. They moved to a house in Monterey Park, California with a backyard plagued by weeds and scorched by the sun. Armed with nothing but sickles, shovels, and gloves, the children spent their summer overturning the earth and praying for rain.
Aged fruit trees lined the property’s greying plot: pears, lemons, oranges, avocados, and loquat. When sweat stung their eyes and their tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouths, they’d toss aside their tools and escape to the mercy of the tree canopies. Mom would shimmy up the trunks like a monkey and pluck hard pears and sour oranges. She loved that nothing was truly unmalleable. Her hands could nourish a seed that, with proper care, would become a tree, bigger than her.
Along with the garden, my grandparents acquired chickens, carrier pigeons, and a goat—a small urban farm of sorts. My grandpa planted plumerias, his favorite, around the yard. He loved how the cheerful yellows, peaches, and greens of the bushes complemented the enduring desert sunshine. Thanks to their labor in the garden, the family could worry less about how to eat, and more about what to eat. Mom felt the ache of gardening in her arms, the soreness of her back, the feeling of being young and old, free and responsible, all at once. She saw everything she had made, and it was very good.
When my mother became an elementary school teacher, she financed a garden for her students out of her own paycheck. She taught in low-income neighborhoods, and she knew giving these skills to her students was not only fun; it could also help support a healthy diet and perhaps, ever so slightly, relieve their parents financially as it had hers. She and her students planted green beans and tomatoes, harvested corn and pumpkins, and plucked seeds out of the heads of giant sunflowers, some taller than the first-graders themselves. My mom tended to all of her seedlings with care.
photo courtesy of the author and her mother
During the last year of my graduate program, my mother began teaching at a new school, where she planted a new garden for her kids. When I visited her, she’d show me pictures of her students building and eating salads out of their latest harvest. Their tiny hands gripped as many pumpkin seeds as they could. Their arms cradled yellow squash, waxy zucchini, and dewy heads of broccoli. Working in the garden was the students’ favorite part of their day. It felt like an extension of all the ones my mother had planted before.
I’d just graduated and moved to New York for work when the news broke that the district would be taking away the garden. They did not create the garden, nor did they fund it, but they were destroying it because, they claimed, the children were “too loud”—too audibly happy while gardening for an hour a week near other classrooms. My mom told me how her students cried at the news, all of them sad and silent, wiping tears from their flushed faces. Mom has never been much of a crier, but that day, she wept with her students.
photo courtesy of the author and her mother
I struggled with manic depression in undergrad and the beginning of graduate school, still searching for that feeling of home as I waded through the vast sunflower fields of Winters, California, stumbled down the foggy slopes of Ingleside, San Francisco, fell asleep on the blades of grass in Discovery Park, Sacramento, leapt over earthworms and mushrooms in the Berkeley hills, and watched Cassiopeia peak over the train tracks that ran through Davis. California continued to dry and crack and burn.
When I settled into my tiny apartment in Berkeley for my final year of graduate school, I began to reconnect with family and friends in Long Beach. It started to rain, and the state went into a floral “super-bloom,” as the locals called it. The hills of Los Angeles became a Monet-esque blur of orange and purple and yellow and blue. I took the 5 down to SoCal for the holidays, amazed by the patches of wild poppies in the rocky pockets of the Tejon Pass. They swayed in the breeze, facing the sun, beckoning me back.
photo courtesy of the author and her mother
Encouraged by the blooms all around, my mom again bought seeds for the winter: cabbage and carrots and cauliflower. She’d just learned she wouldn’t have to abandon her garden after all, thanks to a secret fundraiser. Friends and family had pooled their money to purchase new box gardens in a different location on the school campus. The new garden would be deep enough for mature plants to spread their roots, versatile enough to adapt to any season.
My mother’s students cheered and giggled and prepared to uproot their creations to replant in new soil. Mom toted huge sacks of fertilizer, purchased trash bags for weeds, and taught her students the correct way to till the new, deeper soil. They turned a gray patch of earth into their own tiny Eden, bunched between crowded bungalows and hidden from passersby—a secret oasis of their own.
the author's mother in her garden
I’m going home to visit my mom soon. When we talk on the phone now, we talk of all the things blooming in our lives, knowing that plants are connected to roots and bulbs that can flourish anywhere with the right kind of care. The last time I spoke with Mom, she said she had her students grow potted narcissus flowers while they wait for the transition of their crops.
Meanwhile, California was on fire. The largest wildfire in modern California history scorched the super bloom. It was only weeks ago that it was finally contained. To outsiders, it looked like hell. To Californians, an extended summer. I’m 2,800 miles away. My friends and family say it was smokey in the hills for a while, but not the end of the world. For a day, the 405 was closed, and a friend said that evening was eerily quiet in the neighborhood I grew up in.
Days before I moved across the country, I parked my car in that small, empty alley and stood on the sidewalk, still ashen and crumbling. The single yellowing lamp shed light on our old garden patch that had once bordered the brick freeway wall. To my astonishment, the patch was blooming again: not with flowers, but with thick green bushes and shrubs native to southern California. The plants were lush, grappling together toward the top of the looming barrier. I watched the foliage sway in the gentle midnight breeze, the drone of car engines and helicopters a familiar backdrop to the quiet.
I’m not settled yet. But when it’s time to move again, you can find me in the garden.