Gregory A. French on Writing “The Gardener”
Someone once asked why I write, and a satisfying answer was at first elusive. My gut responses were disconcertingly utilitarian.
“I write for work,” I stammered. “I write for fun.”
Eventually, I found an answer I liked. “I write because I want to,” I said. “I’ve written for almost as long as I can remember.”
I remember in second grade walking home for lunch, icicles hanging from my nostrils in the frigid Wisconsin winter. I would sit at the kitchen table with my mom. A steaming bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup rested in front of me, and the gooey-good aroma of grilled cheese filled the house.
After eating, Mom would prompt and I’d compose. “A little cat sat,” she said.
“In the garden out back,” I answered.
In sixth grade, I dictated a short story about a voyage to Pluto as Mom plucked away on Dad’s old college typewriter, a manual Smith Corona with the sleek design of Mid-century Modernism. And in ninth grade, reading over a short story for a contest, Mom suggested revisions, still encouraging and prompting all those years later.
These days, Mom doesn’t advise and consult as much. She’s still great at catching typos and grammatical errors, but her memory isn’t what it used to be. She finds following the arc of a story increasingly difficult. It might be Alzheimer’s, but we’ll have to wait and see, the doctors advise.
I wrote “The Gardener” for Mom. I wanted to explore the fragile nature of memory and friendship in the midst of a possibly devastating disease and the potential loss of self.
“The Gardener” is the story of an older woman, Grace, and a young man, William. He keeps mostly to himself until he meets Grace in front their condo building, at the rocky outcrop where the condo driveway meets the street. Grace, whose memory is flagging, has been planting flowers. But someone keeps ripping her plants, her “babies,” from their beds. When William comes to Grace’s aid, something deeper takes root. In Grace’s words, “A flower can change the world.” And it does.
This story changed my life, too. Neither the story nor the characters are much like Mom and me. But in writing it, I found some comfort and solace. Memories are born every moment. Even when they’re ripped away from one person, they’re being planted with someone else. I wrote “The Gardener” to make memories. It’s what gardeners do.