While there are things that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid inheriting from our fathers — a bad temper, an insistent and unrelenting desire for order, an impatience for mediocrity, even a growing and unavoidable bald spot—there are also those things that we see in our fathers, which, no matter how hard we pray that genetics will finally grant us its rare favor, we know, we just know we will never ever get.
My father, you see, has a garden. And although he’s known as a good doctor (no mean feat treating Cebu’s own growing population of ulcers and diarrheas, and tending its flowering hemorrhoids), his true gift (beyond telling a good joke, or picking the best wine) is really his green thumb. As far as I can remember, my father has tended this garden every morning. After a cup of coffee and a few minutes of reading the paper, he’s off, watering the plants, snipping branches from a tree, or flicking dead leaves off a bush of flowers. And although he’s probably at his best when he’s at a patient’s bedside, or laughing at the end of a long table of friends, you could say that he’s most at home, meaning he’s most at peace, meaning he’s most himself when he’s bending over the yard to pick out some weeds. (It helps that he usually does this with some background piano music.) My dad’s of a very practical mind, and he’s not a huge fan of all those new age tenets of wellness and “finding one’s center,” but this daily ritual is probably his own form of meditation.
The garden, then, although literally found at the back of the house, is really our home’s center. Guests don’t end their visit without a guided tour of the foliage. Every time I’m home for the summer, one of the first things my dad does is point out to me the newest flower in bloom, or the biggest ampalayas that are ready for harvest. Time here gets measured not in semesters or months, but in seasons of ripening. And I know I’ve really returned when I begin to adapt to the slow rhythm of leaves.
Needless to say, my brother and I grew up in what you could consider the ripe and vast shade of my father. Neither of us, however, has come close to whatever natural nurturing talent he has. The last time I attempted to grow a potted plant in my apartment resulted in a thin twig over parched soil. My sister-in-law is now trying to build her own plot, and I think she’ll have a better chance at some healthy flowers than my brother and I will ever have.
One time, perhaps in an attempt to understand my all-consuming passion for words and books, my dad told me that the reason why I need to read every day is the same reason why he needs to “touch the soil.” And although it may seem that this was needlessly romanticizing the practical and manual labor needed in gardening (and therefore giving it more credit and mystique than it deserved), I have always thought that it was the other way around. Compared to root and weed, words are easy. You can erase them without having to deal with the tedium of soil and sun. You can visit them any time of the day, and they need not die on you. Bad weather is, if not sometimes then most of the time, good enough fertilizer for writing. And words are permanent; pages seem like rocks more than shrubs. After words are published and read, you can throw these away, and they will live longer and livelier without you.
On the other hand, gardens are needy things. They need human touch. They are vulnerable to bad winds. They don’t last long. They need constant love; I can never ever muster enough for words. Gardens do not last forever. And that’s why they are beautiful. ∎
Photo from SunStar Cebu, where this piece was originally published on June 16, 2007.