I'm not a gardener, or at least I never thought I was. Raised in Denver in a detached home with a small front and back lawn, I never saw the appeal of gardening and lawn work. On the contrary, the lawn for me represented chores, labor, and arguments with my dad about responsibilities and "helping around the house." I looked at our grass and didn't see God's green carpet, but a lawn that needed to be watered and mowed. I gazed at our well-groomed bed of flowers, and saw not a symphony of colors in perfect harmony, but weeds that needed to be picked.
And when I looked at trees, all I saw were tens of thousands of leaves that I - at about this time of year - would have to rake.
Every day during the summer, my father would take my mother on a "tour" of the garden. A "tour," I mentally mocked, is what you take to France, not a two-minute stroll in the backyard. Yet off they would go, inspecting the roses, commenting on the growth of the sunflowers, oohing and ahhing at the plum tree. I was too young to appreciate my parents' love for their tomato plants or tiny radish crop. Why not just buy it in the store and save on all the toil and aggravation?
AND IT wasn't that I didn't appreciate nature. No sir. Fashioning myself a veritable Grizzly Adams, I liked the Rocky Mountains looming majestically to the west of the city as much as the next guy, probably more. Colorado aspens, columbine flowers and cold, trout-filled mountain rivers I loved, because I could look, smell, jump in and move on.
But I liked my nature where I didn't have to do anything to it, where it didn't mean work, where it didn't need tending. Nobody needs to trim the hedges of the Great Outdoors. It was the nature in my small backyard that I resented because of all the work it entailed, work that I felt was dumped on me.
And it is for that reason that when I first moved to Israel, I had no problem with apartment living. Indeed, I relished it. No lawn to cut, no garden to waste my time.
Okay, there were some floors to wash, but that was eminently doable, especially since I could always force the kids to do it.
In fact, I never quite understood why so many of my friends yearned for the lawns they had left in the States, and fantasized about a red-roofed "cottage" here - with a garden. This fantasy struck me as especially odd where I live in Ma'aleh Adumim, on the cusp of the Judean desert.
Ma'aleh Adumim, blisteringly hot in the summer, is not exactly a garden-friendly environment, which is why all those brochures for new apartments here showing a handsome family of four, happily lounging on their lush lawns, are just so much hooey. The smart families lay rock or concrete instead of grass in the space reserved for a garden, because a week into spring here and freshly planted grass is already turning yellow-brown.
The other families just generally get tired and let dirt and weeds conquer their "garden."
BUT SOMETHING happened to me this year. Maybe it's age and the feeling that a person approaching the mid-century mark must, by right, piddle in dirt and worry about daisies. Or maybe it's some long-buried aesthetic sense bursting through. Whatever the reason, all of a sudden and after all these years, I got this nutty urge to start a garden.
Garden, mind you, is a bit of a misnomer here. We're talking about a third-floor balcony - seven floor tiles by 13 - not exactly an expanse of land as far as the eye can see.
But one day as I looked out the window at that balcony, I saw it not as the repository for rags, skateboards and a broken basketball hoop that it had been, but what it could be: a little Japanese mini-garden where one goes for solace and comfort from the hurly-burly.
A good friend gave me some periwinkles, as well as some clippings of portulacas, which amazingly open into bright reds, oranges and yellows when the sun shines, and close at night. I purchased on my own a small champagne-colored bougainvillea and some petunias, and my son from the "environmental yeshiva" planted some spearmint and carrots. Within a week it was all in bloom, and then - like my parents - every morning I was out there touring the garden, seeing what had come up.
The Wife, who has long urged me to find a hobby, found it quaint and very mid-life watching me take an interest in the flowers, though she resisted my repeated attempts to make her play Scarlett O'Hara to my Rhett Butler, and take afternoon mint juleps out on the veranda. As for the kids, well, with the exception of the boy from the "environmental yeshiva," they found all of this - naturally - rather pathetic.
"Abba really is getting kind of old, huh," I heard my oldest utter.
But it was not until my friend with the portulacas gave me a passion fruit vine that I understood the meaning of it all.
The vine grows fast, and in many directions. But I have power over it - completely. If it is growing too fast, I just clip a branch and keep it down. If it moves right or left of the direction I predestined, I pin it to the wall and it follows the path that I direct and determine.
With the kids very much in the process of setting out on their own - next year I'll be lucky if one of four lives full-time at home - I have found an obedient substitute in a vine. I can control it completely, and it bends passively and utterly to my will. Forget the colors or the sensation of Mother Earth between the fingers; it's that feeling of consummate control that constitutes the true pleasure of gardening.
Until, of course, it starts to rain.