In an area of transients, the old man's garden provided an air of permanence. Seventeen years ago we'd been transients, too: newlyweds who'd discovered a Virginia suburb where downtown Washington could be forgotten and our hometowns in New England remembered. Maple trees lined the main street and cattle grazed in fields just blocks from our newly built home.
Feeling a sense of belonging, we stayed on, putting down roots, raising a family, becoming active in community affairs, adopting this small town as our new hometown. But it didn't stay small.
Housing developments, apartment complexes and condominiums, shopping centers and superhighways mushroomed over the open fields and wooded tracts. Covered was our children's favorite kite-flying field and flattened was their special slope for sledding, but the old man's garden remained.
Year after year, even before the cherry blossoms burst open, we'd see him out turning the soil, readying it for planting. His short, stocky body clad in dark work clothes would bend over the furrows, sowing seeds, setting in plants. Oblivious to the traffic streaming past on one of the town's major arteries, he'd toil rapt in the miracle of spring's new beginnings and the gift of life and growth.
Each year, we'd monitor his tender young shoots as they became full-grown plants--peas climbing their wire supports, bushes of green beans and peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, squash and corn neatly parading in staggered rows across his large garden plot. His front row stars were colorful flowers for cutting--gaudy marigolds, rainbow zinnias, splashy spikes of gladioli, red and orange cannas reaching head-high.
One day I noticed a hand-painted sign on his front lawn, "Bulbs for sale." I stopped and the old gardener showed me around his yard, pointing out the various plant species as a parent would show off his children to friends. He gave me advice about planting and caring for the canna bulbs in much the same tone as older mothers advised me about raising our youngsters.
Some years later I needed corn stalks for a Halloween program at a local school. Spying the shocks he'd stood in one corner of his harvested field, I asked him for some. Happy to see his castoffs provide pleasure for children, he gathered up armloads of stalks and helped me stow them in the trunk of my car, their frazzled edges dangling out to sweep the road. As we walked from field to car, he recounted tales of Halloween pranks he'd performed when he was the ages of my sons.
Those sons, teen-agers now, barely remember what our town was like when it was small and they were small. They've seen the little houses on large acreage so like the gardener's white bungalow vanish under the bulldozer's blade. They've watched 8 or 10 larger houses pop up on the site, patio-to-patio, window-to-window, placed with the precision of a Playskool village.
Although other older residents surrendered to suburban sprawl, the gardener held out against rising taxes and the lure of large sums of money offered for his place, his space.
A cul-de-sac of look-alike houses sprouted up next to his property line, nudging his garden and the wide stretch of lawn around it. The old man's nudging back was subtle. He planted a row of acorns at the edge of his garden.
Scruffy little leaves poked out and stretched for their share of the sun. Slowly but inevitably, the little oaks clung to the earth and thrived, becoming as deeply rooted as their planter. He and they became symbols of permanence.
As the ground thawed last year, we drove past and saw him out in the garden. But something new had been added: a walking cane, a metal contraption of the type sometimes used by stroke victims. "Oh, no," we groaned. "There goes the garden!"
We soon found we'd misjudged his persistence. He called to a friend for help and that spring and summer, two elderly statesmen of the soil, one leaning on a cane, worked the plot. Nothing changed. The flowers blossomed and faded, the vegetables flourished and were harvested, winter snows melted into spring.
Planting was well underway this spring when the habit of a lifetime suddenly was halted. The rescue truck, red lights flashing, signaled trouble when we saw it parked outside the white bungalow. A day or two later, an obituary notice appeared in the papers chronicling this simple man who'd died in the same no-nonsense way in which he'd lived.
That which he'd planted before he died was tended by others throughout last summer, but the empty rows left unplanted spoke silently of the transience of all men.
Frost faded the flowers and colored the leaves of the little oaks. As we drove past the garden plot this winter, we saw snow and sleet decorating their branches and blanketing their roots. Now spring is in the air and we're waiting for the trees to burst into bud. Although we'll never again see the old gardener--that heralder of new beginnings past--something of him still lives.