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August 29, 2019

The Layered Garden

How a new mom came to terms with her husband’s new-found obsession.

by Caroline Hamilton Langerman

I had finally gotten both babies into an afternoon nap when the doorbell rang. The man in the green jumpsuit on my porch was too attractive to be an escaped convict, so I opened the front door.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Your husband sent me to oil your camellias.”     

I looked back at him dumbly.            

“I didn’t want you to be frightened if you saw me in your backyard. If it’s all right, I’ll head back there and get to work.” 

We had lived in Charlotte for about a year and were still learning the landscape. I knew what camellia plants were — gorgeous, scarlet- and blush-colored blossoms that snuck out of bushes in the dead of winter — but I didn’t understand the part about oiling. I smeared something wet  (breast milk? diaper cream?) down the side of my jeans. “Oh, thank you. Let me know if you need anything.” I smiled as if I had lemonade in the fridge.    

My husband and I had two babies under 2, and my new job was to keep them alive. It turned out I was unqualified and needy, and his devotion to our plants was starting to feel like a betrayal. His knowing that our camellias needed oil was insulting to my own to-do list: breathe, eat, sleep, cry. There was definitely not lemonade in the fridge.   

I was out on the doormat the moment I saw my husband’s headlights each evening. “Dinner’s ready,” I pleaded.

“I’ll be right in after I turn the compost pile.” The jingle of his keys sounded light, carefree. I sat stir-crazy at the kitchen table while he stirred worms.

On Saturday morning, I longed for a hot shower while he played with the kids. “Sure! They can help me finish the weeding.”   

The weeding? Pre-kids, his perfectionism had been sexy. His Ivy League degree, the white undershirts stacked neatly in his closet like magazines, all of this was like gasoline on my crush. He flossed not once, but twice a day. Was that even a thing? I wondered, as I stepped into my dirty pajamas and waited for him to come to bed. When the dentist said “daily,” I figured you got 100% credit for doing it once.

His search for extra credit had taken root outdoors at the very moment when all of my needs were indoors. The yard — even the word itself — adapted a kind of demented hilarity for me. I, too, wanted our new home to exude Southern charm, but right now it was so irrelevant, so immaterial to the round-the-clock survival care I was giving two small beings. At best, the concept of The Yard made me giggle like a mad scientist. At worst, it made me mad.

“Where do you want to keep your poison?” I asked menacingly, holding up his bottles of fertilizer. When he dialed the plant nursery to see if his new bushes had arrived, I muttered, “I’ll just be manning the real nurseries.”   

One day, after I’d strong-armed both crying babies into their maddeningly complicated car seats to go for a “colic cruise,” my phone buzzed with an email from my husband titled “Zoysia vs. Bermuda grass.” The pros and cons were bullet-pointed, and he ended with a note about needing to get the grass seed rooted before a business trip to Sea Island.

Double whammy.

“Go,” I said softly, trying to mean it. 

The business trip was 72 hours.

“Sea Island,” I said to the toddler, who had an entire quarter of a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, “is off the coast of Georgia.” I pointed to a pink state on the plastic map under his bowl.

Then I turned the map to the baby. “Geor-gia,” I said again. She burst into tears.

Later, there were friendly texts from Sea Island, wanting a report. My mind jumped to the toddler’s amazing new habit of affirming every statement I made.

“You had so much fun in the backyard.”

“I did!”

“You are so sweet.”

“I am!”

“We are proud of you for pooping in the potty!”

“You are!”

“It’s wonderful to be outdoors.”

“It is!”

“Do babies like bananas?”

“We do!”

Our little boy’s perfect use of pronouns and verbs was almost enough to erase all the hardship. I loved every inch of him. His little eyelashes that blinked at a pace that let me appreciate each one. His nascent understanding of the English language, my other love. His cheeks that looked poppable and his small eyebrows, whispering to one another like his dad’s. And beside him, his rabbit-footed sister with her low, throaty chortle. Some hideous creature inside me wanted to horde these images, insisting that I alone had earned them.

I sent a cute photo; he sent back hearts. Was I the problem?

The night he was due home from Sea Island, I watched the clock like a bird of prey. The children were asleep, and the counters smelled like lavender. I wanted him to open a bottle of wine and shower me with praise. He wanted to open his Amazon boxes and take a shower.

He pulled some gardening mittens out of cellophane, and next, a hardcover book called The Layered Garden. On the back, it had twelve pictures showing how just when one plant died, a new blossom would emerge. It looked ambitious, but I had to admit, it looked appealing.

Over the course of the next few months — camellia season, then spring’s delicate dogwoods unfolding, and finally summer’s limelight hydrangeas opening their green faces to the sky — the babies cried less, talked more, laughed louder. In summer’s heat, while their daddy was delayed at LaGuardia or crunching numbers in a cubicle, we played hide-and-seek in his garden and made a waterslide with his hose. I noticed how when my day was easier than his, he didn’t complain; on the contrary, he celebrated with me. Maybe our marriage was like the layered garden at our first house: As one stage was dying, another was blooming.

One day in early November, when our Carolina yard had September’s warmth but December’s light, our trees were both raining leaves and snowing flowers. White petals, storming down from the perfectly oiled camellias, delighted the kids, who dropped them over each other’s heads, laughing. I sat on a teak picnic chair that had been expertly weather-protected and stained by the busiest arms on the block. Against the odds, in spite of the difficult elements, I felt I was finally blooming, too.

“Thank you,” I whispered, letting go of the scorecard and letting appreciation fully take root.  SP

Caroline Hamilton Langerman is a writer in Charlotte. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Town & Country and others.

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