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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2001.
it stays in the ground
april 28, 2001
Last weekend, Mary and I opened our kitchen door, and stepped out into our backyard.
It had been a while since we'd been out there.
The previous summer, we had another terrible drought in Texas, trees by the side of the road catching fire, flowers curling inwards, drooping down.
When we first had our home built here in 1991, we had the builders sod the front yard, but left the back barren. At the time, we were thinking of putting in a swimming pool.
This area of Texas has clay soil. Where we live, it's white clay. Looking out our picture window in the breakfast nook, we'd see a rolling, stark white landscape, rocks and pebbles scattered across. It looked like the surface of the moon.
But then we got interested in gardening. One weeknight we went out onto the moon, staking where we wanted beds to be, as if each bamboo skewer stuck into the dry, hard ground was a magic wand that would one day transform this harshness into something lush.
We started spending our weekends outdoors, going to the local Calloways nursery to buy trees, bushes, vines and flowers, hauling them home, carrying them across our springy green lawn, through the gate, to the moon. We who stayed indoors as much as possible beforehand, now developed "Texas tans", face and forearms bronze.
As bad as the soil on the surface of our yard was, what we had immediately underneath was far worse: densely-packed white rocks. Packed all around the white rocks was thick white clay, itself in the slow process of transforming into rock. In fact, with some fascination, we'd show each other heavy, jagged hunks of white clay, some portions of which had already become rock. Each year as we dug out the rocks, we'd wheel-barrow them to the side of our house, upending the barrow into a growing pile. At the end of the third year, the pile was above our roofline. We hired two kids to haul the pile away. It took six truck loads. Because of the rocks, in order to plant a flower, we had to repeatedly swing a pick-axe down into the ground, wobbling its barely-submerged point to loosen things up a bit, then raise up and swing down again.
By the end of each day, under the strong yellow sun, our bodies, clothes and sneakers would be drenched in sweat. We'd collapse into chairs at the back of the yard, under the faint shade of the native trees growing there, and tilt cold bottles of beer up to our lips. To this day, a decade later, I remember the delicious sensation of the coldness of the dark German beer lowering into our over-heated bodies.
One of the first projects we worked on was digging a couple of beds to plant irises. Once we received the plants in the mail and read the accompanying instructions, we realized we each had to dig an oblong bed six feet long, several feet deep.
From early morning, it took us all day, into the evening, swinging the pick-axes, to dig those beds, getting on our hands and knees every few swings to reach down into the wide holes, pulling the broken white rocks up into our embrace, rumbling them over the rough edge of the holes with our forearms. We get large birds out in this part of Texas, hawks and eagles bigger than dogs, with wide wing spans. As we swung and dug, their darkness descended on telephone poles around us. Finished, each of us standing over the hole we had dug, six feet long, three feet wide, four or five feet deep, swaying on our feet under the heat, we realized both beds were in the shape of graves.
It took us years, but eventually we had what we wanted, what we saw that first day we pushed the bamboo skewers into the hard white ground. Our back yard was transformed from the surface of the moon to a small, lush park, large beds containing trees, bushes and flowers, quiet grass paths winding among.
Until recently, until the drought, we'd go out each evening after we got home from work, into our garden, our park, sitting at the rear of the property under the same native trees we collapsed under in the first years, drinking beer, silently looking around, smiling, at the butterflies, the bunnies hop-racing across a grass path, the bright birds laddering up the hedges, talking about our day, our lives together, life in general. Because of all the greenery, the tall trees and wide bushes, the world back here is rich in oxygen. Heady. Over the green years, we've discussed what matters most to us back here, held hands most back here, smiled our broadest grins, shed our biggest tears. When I die, if I am permitted one memory of what I am leaving, I don't think it will be the passionate, pretzeled bouts of love-making Mary and I share, I don't think it will be my mother's face, I don't think it will be that perfect meal in a restaurant, I don't think it will be my first reading of Ovid, Nabokov, or Shakespeare; I don't think it will be my creation, cigarette-by-cigarette, squint-eyed, of any of my novels; I think it will be just any ordinary day Mary and I sat side-by-side under those trees, in the little park we created, quietly, happily, looking around.
As I said, the past summer Mary and I got out there very little, because of the heat, the dryness. As a consequence, we wondered if we'd have to start all over again, this year, in rebuilding our garden from the ground.
But opening the door off the kitchen, stepping out into our neglected garden, we were surprised at how much of our dream had held up in our absence. Even without us tilling the soil, under the spreading trees we planted so long ago our irises still arose, tall and strong, tops of their stems spreading ruffled purple, salmon and white; our grass paths grew back under the beatings of this season's better rains; a honeysuckle vine wandered green and supple in our absence, leafed tendrils reaching slowly up, curling around the white slats of the trellis, sprouting hundreds of the little yellow and ivory tongue-shaped blossoms that put the most luxuriant of all fragrances into the air.
We were worried our absence might cause everything we had done to go away, but it wasn't so. Our work assured the return. Our influence on the moon lasted. Buried, ready to arise. After we ourselves are gone, and someone else moves in, or this area reverts to a field, each Spring the bulbs will still poke up, the blossoms unfurl, from exactly where we put them, long ago. What we did is still there. It will always be there.
It stays in the ground.
As I said, when we first moved into our brand-new home, with its white walls, white ceilings and white carpets, we had no interest at all in gardening, no desire to go outside.
So what changed us?
A woman I worked with then, back in 1991, Betty, brought in a wet cardboard box one Friday soon after we moved in, filled with trimmed iris plants, short, slant-clipped green blades, beige roots clumped with dirt.
She told me all the irises were a plain yellow. She bought them thinking they were red; after the first year, when they bloomed and she realized they were the wrong color, she dug them up, bringing them in because she thought we, in our new home, might want them.
I took them home out of politeness, leaving them in our garage for a week or so. One Saturday morning, while Mary was preparing breakfast, I thought, Well, why not plant them, to see what happens?
I dug shallow white holes for each of them, along one red-brick outside wall of our moonscape, as an afterthought marking the bed by placing a line of small white stones in a rectangle around them.
We never watered, fed, looked at them.
The following Spring, we watched with fascination each weekend as each elongated up, the tight twist of bloom atop eventually unfurling into a plain, butter yellow.
The process of watching the plants rise and evolve into beauty fascinated us. Soon afterwards, we went out into that moonscape, holding bamboo skewers.
Betty was a heavy-set woman in her fifties. She came from a small town in west Texas, one of those arrangements of ten buildings under a couple of trees you spot on the horizon from a hundred highway miles away. An atheist who was hard of hearing, she had an amplification device on her business telephone handset she'd have to screw up to MAX each time the phone rang. She had been married, in her youth, to a building contractor, living in the huge home in Dallas he built for them. But he was away most of the time, and when he was home, it was her sitting at the kitchen table, him doing all the loud talking. She divorced him, married a pot-bellied security guard, Frank, who I met only once, and who seemed to be a typical Southern cracker, wrongly-opinionated, who appeared to have read as many books in his lifetime as Betty read in a week, but there was no doubt in my mind, seeing them interact, that they loved each other. They lived together in a small, one-story house they rented in one of the less-desirable areas of Dallas.
A year or so after Betty gave us the boxful of irises, Frank had a stroke. A stroke can be nothing more than a brief lightening bolt through the body, an event that makes you sit down in a chair, then call your doctor. But Frank's stroke was much worse. It left him paralyzed, in a coma, flat on his back in bed, first at their home, in familiar surroundings, later, in a nursing home.
Because she had been kind to us, Mary and I sent her a flower arrangement. This particular arrangement came with a device that played a selected tune. We selected "You Are My Sunshine." A year later, after she lost their home, and lost her job, and it was obvious Frank was never going to wake up again, and what little time he had left he'd have to live connected to tubes, she told me pressing that little metal button on our arrangement to restart the tinny melody of "You Are My Sunshine" had meant so much to her; that while it ratcheted through its loop she'd sit beside her comatose husband's bed in the nursing home, singing the lyrics to him.
She had shown kindness to us, and we had shown kindness to her.
I don't think any of us realize the degree to which we influence others, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers.
When I was eleven, my family took its annual trek to Atlantic City. I slipped away from my parents, strolling on my own down the wide boardwalk, trying to find a way to wander from childhood to adulthood, stopping at a semi-circle gathered around a middle-aged man who had set up a couple of folding tables to sell knives. Stunningly, he called on me to participate in one of his vegetable-paring demonstrations. After I was allowed to rejoin the crowd, he characterized me as a "co-operative boy", and beckoned forth another boy, a little older than me, who he immediately described as a "handsome lad". Now, this is stupid, but ever since then, in all the long decades since, there's a part of me convinced I'm not good-looking, that I'm homely, because of that stranger's brief, off-hand remark. Isn't that stupid? But it lingers.
In the late seventies, Mary and I were lying on one of the many beds we've shared and destroyed, this one in northern California, and she announced suddenly that I had "Jesus feet." By that she meant long, shapely, bone-prominent feet. I can't tell you how many times in the decades since I've summoned up that honest compliment to get me through moments of depression. Human I am, all too, my faults I think covering me like sores, but even in the darkest of my despairs, a little voice says, I have Jesus feet.
If we have any purpose on this plane, it's to leave the world a better place than we found it. If we say something to someone out of love or hate, it stays with that person forever, until the end of their days, whether they agree with the assessment or not. When I see people, in their face I don't see an adult. I see always the child, aging. There is nothing more powerful, more uplifting or destructive, than a word. A word from years or decades ago can grace us through our worse times, or eat at us through our best. When we say something, whether holding the other's hands, or casually, over our shoulders, we may think it can be qualified later, but it never can.
It stays in the ground.