The mostly blind woman, all 90 years of her, wanders into the concrete expanse shared by four apartment buildings. While I watch and row. It’s good to be rowing. I am returned from Hawaii in parts. The latter must be reassembled, and there is no hurry. Sleep is poor. Perhaps it would help if I turned up the heat at night. My body does not believe rest is possible under such frigid conditions. And where are the waves, rarely lapping, generally pounding, endlessly rushing themselves into foam? Where is this 90-year-old going, that is the current question? She has macular degeneration, her resident grandson tells me. Something keeps her wandering, or as she doubtless regards it, walking. Being practically sightless, the world either dissolved into formlessness or darkness and light, or so I imagine, how does she navigate? Actually all of these speculations quickly fall away. They are superseded by another.
What would happen if I slipped off the rowing machine, crunched on the carport concrete and there remained? Of course, I do slip off the rowing machine on a regular basis. This is how I get up and off the thing. Slipping toward the ground would be a nuance. Unwanted, but only a matter of degree and direction. The 90-year-old woman and I encounter each other on a regular basis. She heads in the general direction of the street which necessitates remaining on the concrete footpath, then navigating the dimensionless parking area, and not getting hit by any cars. Hello, I often say. This generally takes her aback. What to say and where to say it? She stares into the space about a meter to my right. A muttered word or two. On one occasion she says ‘I see you.’ I always see her, see her S curves staggering to the street.
On this occasion I want to know what will happen if I wind up on the carport floor. Help, help, would that be my cry? And if it was, what would she do? Stagger in my direction or, confused, stagger off? It is the next part that worries me, a matter of constant concern. Falling. Helpless. Abandoned.
Well, it is a little precarious, my rising. At the end of the rowing machine, just behind my head, Tom the landlord has parked a Safeway shopping cart. Supermarket trolleys are known for having wheels, rolling rather than fixing themselves to the ground. And when one considers that the rowing machine sits on a wooden platform atop six plastic milk cartons, nothing in the vicinity affords a steady grip. But grip I do, the Safeway cart. It not only rolls, and I encourage this, backwards toward the carport wall, but tilts. I get off the rowing machine by bracing the less paralyzed arm atop the Safeway stainless steel, leaning dangerously forward over my center of gravity and hoping for sufficient knee power and arm strength to get vertical. Things are a little wonky on the practical level, I concede. But if I didn’t worry about the rowing machine, wouldn’t there be something else?
Which, in retrospect, was the marvelous function of Hawaii. Lulled by the tropics’ sun and moon, cradled by the trade winds, sleeping with windows wide open, night after night of this, defenses settle out of sight, fears soar into the night, all to the steady, dissipating beat of waves. Stripped to the basics, largely inactivated, will draining day by day, the core remains. Inherently anxious, yet capable of being soothed. And strangely articulate. Reaching a certain depth, neuroses more accessible, everything calms, focuses, finds its voice. And while devoid of propulsion, finds its way. Peace, I realized in Hawaii, is the way forward. Not that I will ever be peaceful. But the surface and the externals need to settle for the inner turbulence to…well, do what ever it has to do.
Sunday at the farmer’s market. Just watch me. At the Merced orange stand, I ask one of the busy staff to assemble a two pound bag for me. They have better things to do. There is a queue, after all. But I am either shameless or confident, hard to say which. I like the oranges, having sampled one juicily over my copy of The Nation. The latter could use a little orange. And the brussels sprouts from Modesto? Same thing. A woman gathers and weighs them for me. Moss Landing narcissus? A young braless woman throws me badly off my neuromuscular stride. While she assembles the flowers, I fail to assemble the cash. It is there, in my purse, but things are not moving swiftly. She gives me change, I stuff the bills behind the others, but they won’t go. Never mind. I zip the stuffed purse shut, bulging bills and all. What I can’t do, and think I should be able to, is to stop dropping oranges under the narcissus stand. The braless girl, and I decide that is what she is, barely in her 20s, retrieves the oranges. I am now trying to be efficient, combining bags of brussels sprouts, oranges, flowers into one, and getting angry. I have been here forever. I am a fool. People are watching me, my incompetence revealed. In the end, the girl helps me assemble three bags into one and hang my shopping from a handle of the wheelchair. Goodbye, I tell her, somewhat airily. Who do I think I am?
In the garden I haven’t a clue. So I go there now, staring at my handiwork. I do not come from a long line of gardeners. I come from a short line. When my parents stepped off a hospital ship and out of their uniforms, in Long Beach Harbor one day in 1945, surely neither of them knew anything about seeds or steer manure. But within a couple of years there they were in upper Sonoran desert domesticity, going agrarian. My brother has family photos of my father rolling desert rocks into lines to delineate lawns and flower beds. Growing up with servants, he had never learned to cook. But he learned to do this, and I have the photos to prove it. Not only that, but a scar in my abdomen. I got a five-year-old’s hernia helping him roll stones, according to family legend. Which may actually be true.
I doubt that my mother knew much more about coaxing irises from the desert sands. Let alone roses. But this only occurred to me in retrospect. At the time, all I knew was that one patch of ground in a boulder-lined bed would shortly produce carrots. I either sprinkled the seeds on the ground myself or watched closely as my mother did. Either way, damned if they weren’t there within a few months, green tops swaying in the arid winds, orange roots emerging crunchy, and once rinsed off by a garden hose, edible.
They must have made it up as they went along, my parents. And they had this phase of doing things together, creating an oasis of lawns and flowers out of hostile desert scrubland. It was very quiet around our desert home. Too quiet, actually. There were not enough people around, but there was quiet. There were no people around, my parents excluded. A chance to go quietly into oneself or go quietly out of one’s mind. It led where it led. And, it must be said, everyone came out a gardener.