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Starting Point

The wonder of growing things


We planted our gardens late this year. It couldn’t be helped. The men who tend the grounds at the Adrian Dominican motherhouse were swamped with work. After they plowed the garden, located beside the old laundry, two sisters divided it into small plots so any sister who wanted a garden could have one.

The gardens are planted now. My plot holds 12 tomato plants in their sturdy cages and three small rows of pole beans. The beans seem to grow an inch each night. They will soon outgrow the small bamboo poles set out for them. At each summer’s end I vow this will be my last garden. At 81, planting and harvesting cause my bones to ache. My back hurts. It’s hard to stand up after kneeling to plant seeds.

Yet each year when the weather turns warm, I dream of a garden. I am lured by the feel of the good earth running through my fingers, the opportunity to share in the mystery of creation.

The garden has become a place of refuge. When I grieve over the terrible scandals in the church, suffer with the homeless because of our war on terrorism, or share the misery of countless people dying of starvation in Africa, I take consolation in the garden.

My neighbors’ gardens are also faring well. To the left of me, two sisters who work full-time at the motherhouse have planted a rich variety: zucchini, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes. To my right is Elizabeth’s garden. She started her tomatoes from seeds planted in pots on her windowsill. Maria has a tiny plot near mine. Although she is legally blind, she still works in her garden. It reminds her of her childhood in Italy.

The only time I can remember when the peace of the garden was disrupted was when Maria scolded me for planting my tomatoes too close to the border separating our two plots. She threatened to cut off the vines that overhung her plot, but never carried out the threat. How could a gardener ever destroy a plant?

Maria liked to visit the garden and reflect on the wonder of growing things. She went to her garden at least once a day. If someone joined her, she would call out, “Who are you?” After Mass one Sunday last month, Maria went to her garden as usual. Several hours later, Sr. Marilyn found her lying on the ground, victim of a stroke. She lingered overnight in the hospital and died the following day. At her funeral liturgy, the homilist said, “If there is a garden in heaven, Maria will surely be there.”

Maria’s death adds a new texture to my garden visits. It’s no longer merely a refuge from the ugliness of the day’s news. It’s a place to experience not only burgeoning life and growth but also the mystery of death. Like gardens at the end of summer, our bodies with their rich gifts will one day wither and die. Yet death, like the unending cycle of growth and decline, carries the promise of a new spring. We will rise again. Rest in peace, Maria.

Retired Adrian Dominican Sr. Lois Spear is the author of God Is With You: Prayers for Men in Prison (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002