My grandmother’s hands are speckled and swollen. The skin, browned and stretched from years working laboriously in the sun. Kneeling on the brick walkway in front of our house, she loosens the garden bed soil with a swift swoop of her hands. Reaching down into the earth, she pulls back a clump of black dirt. She reaches down again and pulls back another, and another, until she has dug a whole about 8 inches deep. I hover over her shoulder, my own fingers tracing circles in the exposed dirt.
I am impatient, and when I see the long pink shape wriggle its way out of the dirt hole – jerking spinelessly in search for cover – I recoil, ready to run back inside. “It’s just an earthworm,” my grandmother tells me. She places a hand on my back and pushes me forward so that I can see better. “The soil needs the earthworm.”
With two fingers, she scoops up the worm and brings it closer for me to examine. I decidedly don’t like it. I am not an outside girl. I do not like animals, I do not like dirt, and I especially do not like bugs.
Spotting my resistance, she drops the worm back into the hole, covering its body with a thin layer of dirt. I reach around her and grab a square of the packaged yellow pansy beside her. It limps over from the heat of the day. I hand it to my grandmother and its lower leaves are quickly plucked away before it’s set into the dirt hole. “Here,” she tells me, keeping one hand on the pansy’s stem. “Cover the roots with dirt and give it a good pat when you’re done.”
I obey and use both hands to push forward the loose dirt until the stem of the plant is fully supported by a nice asymmetrical mound.
Leaning back on my heels, I watch as my grandmother’s hands reach for another plot of dirt beside the yellow pansy, her fingers reaching into the loose soil like the scoop of a dump truck. I squint and look back at the road behind us, cars whizzing by as we kneel in the dirt under the hot afternoon sun. I think to myself how nice it would be to be inside instead of out here on the shade-less lawn. I wish away the time. And within the passing of a moment, my grandmother tells me she has finished and to grab the containers and go play inside.
Years later I find myself outside, kneeling in my own front yard and tending to my own garden bed. Sweat forms in beads on the nape of my neck, soaks through the thin fabric of my clothes. And though I hide my calloused hands in purple floral garden gloves, I am not afraid now of the dirt. As I work, specks of soil decorate my cheeks. My skin stings with the incessant bite of mosquitoes – their buzz becoming a companion for me in my little space.
Bursts of sound joins me frequently from the highway in front. I am never far from a road, it seems. It is the whir of an accelerating engine that brings me back to the day planting pansies with my grandmother. There were only six that day. In one swift motion, all six were plucked out of their rectangular package and plopped into the earth, covered with a mound. I wonder if that moment meant anything to the pansies, to my grandmother, to the ground. The limp flowers were already dying.
I often think back to that moment, my grandmother’s hands digging into the dark dirt and I try and I try to squeeze out all that I can from those six pansies. To keep a garden alive, you have to know how to work the soil. How deep the hole was dug, how to properly wet the soil, the nutrients needed from the tiny pink earthworms under dirt. I only have those six pansies to guide me as I cut into the ground with my garden spade. I only have that moment.