A Place of Healing
An Amish Garden
by Beth Wiseman
By Vannetta Chapman
"Gardens will bless your soul. They are a place to rest, to draw near, and to heal."
I'd been listening to my mother-in-law, Mary Ann, utter such declarations since I'd married Ben and joined him at his parents' farm in Shipshewana—over thirty years ago. My own five children heard the same words. Ben and I had three girls and two boys. They all insisted on helping their mammi from the time they were big enough to carry a basket, walk behind her, and pick up the weeds she'd pulled from row after row of plants.
Mary Ann was eighty-four, and some days I thought she was shrinking before my eyes. She's now a mere five foot, one, which means she reached past my chin but barely. Her white hair reminds me of the white boneset which blooms in the fall, and her eyes reflected the blue, bell-shaped flowers of the Jacob's ladder plant.
Each year Mary Ann would add another type of flower, an additional patch of vegetables, one more row. The children loved it. They would tag along, listening to her stories and eager to help. I cherished the moments of quiet which filled the house while they were out with her, though I could hear their laughter drifting in on a breeze through the kitchen window. Those sounds created a melody in my heart as I prepared dinner, or mended clothes, or rested a moment with a cup of hot tea. But my children long ago moved to their own homes, with children and gardens of their own. Those days of little ones helping to plant and weed and hoe disappeared like the morning mist over our land.
And our garden continued to expand.
It was only the second week in May, and already our vegetable plot had become a place of riotous chaos. The flowers tangled one with another into an unruly blend of scents and colors—reds, blues, yellow, oranges and pinks. We'd had an early spring, bountiful rains and moderate temperatures which might explain the overzealous growth. Whatever the reason, I struggled to keep up, and the garden became more a place of exhausting labor than a place of healing.
I'd turned fifty a year ago, which meant I had as much gray hair as brown. That wouldn't have normally bothered me, but the idea that gardening wore me out did. Probably I should attempt to lose five or ten pounds. Pride might be a sin but healthy goals weren't. There'd been little time to worry about weight or appearance in recent months. Nearly a year ago, it seemed life had taken a turn for the worse. Last spring, as the green beans were climbing and twining through the trellis we'd built, my father-in-law had died. He was nearly ninety, and he'd been sick for over a year. His passing was a great loss, but not unexpected. Six weeks later we found Ben in the barn, near the horses he loved so much. My husband had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Not to say the entire year had been all gloom and doom. God sprinkled in a few blessings as well, perhaps to assure us He had not turned away.
Three more grandchildren had been born, which brought our total to twelve. Each was a bright spot in my life, even little Thomas who was quite the mischief maker at age four.
Our children, Edna, Ester, Eunice, Harold and Henry were all happily married. And our oldest granddaughter, named Mary Jane after her two great grandmothers, had been baptized into the church.
Notice I still say our.
It seems a year isn't long enough to break that habit. At times I still expect to see Ben walking across the field, carrying his water jug and raising a hand to wave when I come out onto the porch. For the first six months, I had a deep ache lodged under my right rib. Strange that despair would choose such a place to hide. I'd rub at the spot, wondering why it wasn't on my left, near my heart.
One morning I woke, and my heartache had vanished, like the fields beneath the snow outside my window. Life moved on. Spring arrived, as it has a habit of doing. Mary Ann and I manage fairly well, but I miss my husband all the same.
"Gardens are a blessing," mamm declared. "Ya, indeed they are." "You missed a weed, dear. Back near the bean plant." Mary Ann pointed at the offending bunch of quack grass with her cane. I don't think of her as my husband's mother any longer. After living on the same property for over thirty years, she was just mamm. She was sweet, dear, and at times more work than an infant.
I prayed nightly that she would live forever, that she wouldn't leave me alone.
"The weeds are difficult to find, because the plants have grown so tall." I used my apron to wipe the sweat from my brow. "Everything is running together."
"Evil can overtake good—"
"I'd hardly call a weed evil."
"Especially when you don't spend a little time each day tending to what is important." Mamm's eyes twinkled in the afternoon sunlight. She might have been referring to my recent absence.
"I'm glad I went and spent the week with Edna, nonetheless. All three of her children suffering with the flu at the same time? Ack! We had our hands full with laundry and cooking and nursing." Mamm moved her cane left and then right. She gazed off past the barn and her voice softened. "Do you remember the year Harold came down with a bad case of it?"
"He was nine."
"While you were nursing him I spent many an hour out here, praying for that child's soul—that the Lord would see fit to leave him with us a bit longer."
"He would call out, and his blue eyes, they'd stare up at me and nearly break my heart. The fever was dangerously high. I can still remember how hot his skin was to my touch."
I had reached the end of the row. I turned to the next and tried to stifle a sigh. Most afternoons I enjoyed my time in the garden, with Mary Ann sitting on the bench and sometimes dozing in the sun. But today weariness was winning, that and a restlessness that resembled an itch I couldn't reach. Perhaps my impatience came from comparing my daughter's life to ours.
The trip to Middlebury should have been a nice reprieve.
And certainly it had been a delight to spend time with Eunice, her husband and the grandchildren while a neighbor had stayed with Mary Ann. But looking around my daughter's tidy farm and newer house, I found myself wondering if we should sell the old place. Perhaps it was too much for two old women to maintain. Something smaller would be good. My daughter's place was half the size and much more manageable.
"Mamm, this garden is too big."
"No garden is too big, dear."
"We can't possibly eat all of this food."
"Which is why we share with those in need."
We'd joined a co-op several years ago. In exchange for the vegetables, we received fresh milk and eggs. I was happy that I didn't have to look after a cow—I'd never been good at milking though I'd done it enough times as a child. And chickens required constant tending. Still, what we put into the co-op far exceeded what we received.
"Maybe it's grown past what we can manage. Instead of adding a little every year, maybe we should hack something back." I stood and scanned right, then left. The garden which had once been a small vegetable patch now took up one entire side of the yard. "We could plow up that row of flowers over there, maybe plant some grass instead. And we do not need ten tomato plants."
"Help arrives when you call."
I had turned my attention back to the row of vegetables and was reaching up to trim back the joe-pye-weed which threatened to take over the Virginia blue bells that were already in bloom. My hand froze at Danny's name. Slowly, I brushed the dirt from my fingertips by running my hands across my apron. I'd remember that later, after our life had turned. I'd remember the stain of brown slanting from right to left against the light gray material. I swiped at the hair which had escaped from my kapp, tugged my apron into place, and turned to face the man who had first courted me.
Flowers for Rachael
by Kathleen Fuller
Rachael Bontrager let the soft, loamy soil sift through her hands. The warmth of the June morning rays warmed her skin through the thin blue material of her dress. She pushed her kapp strings over her shoulders and picked several stray blades of grass from around the violet verbena she’d planted a few weeks ago. “There. “Better, ya?” She glanced around to see if anyone noticed her talking to her flowers. It wouldn’t be the first time she chatted to the plants in her garden, and it wouldn’t be the last. She moved to check for weeds in a thick layer of hostas and coleus Their vibrant hues of crimson, scarlet, evergreen, and emerald drew her closer, marveling at the beauty of the plants. She reached out and touched a ridged coleus leaf, running her fingertips over the green edges, to the lavender and magenta center. Her first plant, and it had returned since she planted the garden last year. A simple plant. Common. Yet to her, the most special.
The sound of heavy wheels crunching on the gravel of her grandparents’ driveway drew her attention. She hurried through to the wooden gate of the garden, opened it, then made sure to latch it securely behind her. This year the deer were especially plentiful—and hungry.
She shielded her eyes from the bright sun as she looked up at the driver leading a team of huge draft horses closer to the house. The warm June breeze lifted the yellow short sleeves of his shirt, revealing wiry, yet strong, arms. Rachael gulped, forcing her attention from her handsome neighbor, Gideon Bontrager, and onto the load of in the wagon behind him.
“Halt!” His voice deep voice had a husky quality that tickled her ears. He looked down at her and smiled.
“Hallo, Gideon.” She swallowed again, cringing at the high pitch in her voice. “Danki for bringing the manure.” The other day she’d asked his younger sister Hannah Lynn if they had any extra manure from the cows and goats they raised to sell at auctions throughout the year. Hannah Lynn had said Gideon would bring it over. With her garden growing, Rachael needed more fertilizer than her horse could provide.
She walked to the back of the wagon as Gideon jumped down from his seat. She sniffed the air, expecting to inhale the pungent odor of manure. Instead, she barely smelled anything at all. She examined the load in the wagon, picking up a handful. She looked at Gideon. “This is compost.”
Gideon tipped back his straw hat as he neared. Rachael looked up at him, her neck craning to meet his warm brown eyes. He was at least six inches taller than her 5’6 height. He pushed his wire-rimmed glasses closer to his eyes, but didn’t look directly at her. “Ya.”
“From your place?”
He nodded. “We had a little extra from our garden this year.”
She glanced at the load in the wagon. “A little?”
“Uh huh.” He finally looked at her. “But…” He shrugged his shoulders.
She smiled. He was so shy. When she first met him last year, after moving to Middlefield from Indiana to help care for her grandfather, he barely looked at her, much less said anything. But since he lived next door and worked at his family’s farm they couldn’t avoid each other. Lately she realized she didn’t want to.
Yet she kept that to herself. Romance was the furthest thing from her mind. Surely it wasn’t on his, either. Over time he’d learned not to be so shy around her, but that didn’t mean he liked her for more than a friend.
And she had more to worry about than having a boyfriend. Focusing on the load of fresh compost, she said, “Do you mind dumping it in front of the gaarde?”
“Is that where you’re gonna leave it?”
She shook her head. “I’ll get the wheelbarrow and move it all behind the grienhaus.” It wasn’t exactly a greenhouse. Not yet. But once she finished it, she could garden year round, focusing on fresh vegetables that were so expensive during the winter months.
“I can do that for you,” he said.
His kindness didn’t help keep her thoughts on an even keel. “That’s all right. I know you’re busy with the farm.”
“They won’t miss me for a few minutes.” He grinned, displaying a deep dimple in each suntanned cheek. She gripped the edge of the wagon, and tried to get a grip on her senses, too. “I’ll, uh, get the wheelbarrow.”
He nodded and leapt onto the back ledge of the wagon. A few moments later she guided the three-wheeled wheelbarrow toward him.
Gideon tossed a shovelful of compost into the rusted barrow. “Looks like that’s seen better days.” She regarded the wheelbarrow. Gideon was right. The barrow was old, like everything else around her grandfather’s home. One tire kept losing air and she had to fill it using a bicycle pump at least once a week. Purchasing a new one was low on her list of priorities. Keeping food on the table and making sure her grandfather had money for his medication—that’s what mattered most. And it was why her garden was her most important possession in the world.
When the wheelbarrow was nearly full, Gideon plunged the shovel back into the shrinking pile. He jumped down, his huge boots thudding on the gravel drive. He grabbed the handles in his large, strong hands, and pushed it through the open garden gate.
Rachael brushed a few stray flecks of compost from her arm and smiled. Whoever married Gideon Beiler would be a lucky woman. Her smile faded. Too bad that woman wouldn’t be her.
Gideon nearly tripped on a small stone in the winding path through Rachael’s garden. Great. That’s all he needed to do, trip over his gigantic feet like he used to when he was a kinn. Although he was twenty-five, the memories of being teased for his gangly frame came up at the worst times. Like now, when he was trying to be nonchalant around Rachael. Keep cool, his Yankee friend Jack would say. But Jack had never met Rachael Bontrager.
The partially built greenhouse was at the back of her fenced in plot, near a large patch of perennials thriving in the shade of a huge oak tree. He’d never been this far back in her garden before. Gideon dumped the compost and stepped back, studying the structure. Although it wasn’t complete and the design was crude, he could see the genius behind it. Old wood pallets were nailed together to make the floor, and the back wall was constructed from old, mismatched windows. More windows and two old doors were neatly stacked and leaning against the short fence, which upon further inspection he could see was also made of various pieces of wood.
“Obviously it’s not finished yet.”
He turned at her sweet, lilting voice. He glanced down, his eyes meeting her light green ones, which always reminded him of the beach glass he’d picked up on a fishing trip to Lake Erie a few years ago. They were a stark and beautiful contrast to her dark brown hair, which was nearly black against the white of her kapp. He focused on the greenhouse again, not wanting her to catch him staring. “Ya,” he said. Ach, he sounded dumm. Why couldn’t God have blessed him with the gift of smooth speech? And while He was at it, coordination and decent eyesight would be nice. He shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose for the tenth time that morning. “When did your grossvadder start making it?”
“Winter. And he’s not building it, I am.”
He looked at her. “Where did you get the materials?”
“I guess you haven’t seen my grossdaadi’s barn. It’s stuffed with all kinds of spare parts, scraps of wood, nails, screws…all the things he picked up from his odd construction jobs.” She touched the back wall, running her fingers across the chipped white paint. “He can’t bear to part with anything.” She turned to Gideon. “So I decided to put some of it to gut use.”
She never failed to surprise him. While most of his time was taken up working their small farm with his father, sometimes he would take a break and sit on the front porch, eating lunch or just enjoying the rest. Often he’d see her working in the garden, from dawn to dusk it seemed, except for when she went to the flea market on Mondays. Even there she was working, selling plants and flowers to both Amish and Yankee customers. “Mei Daed made sure I knew how to use a hammer and nails,” she added. “It comes in handy. I don’t have all the particulars figured out yet, but it will come together.” She grinned. “I can’t wait to have fresh broccoli in the winter. I love broccoli.”
His gaze stayed on her, and all he could do was nod.
“Broccoli salad, broccoli and rice, chicken and broccoli—”
Did she realize how perfect she was? Resourceful, sweet, beautiful? He wished he could tell her that and so much more.
Instead he grabbed the wheelbarrow. “I’ll get the rest of the compost.”
“Uh, okay,” she said.
He hurried away, his cheeks heating. When would he stop acting like a nervous dumkopf around her? And more important…when would he stop caring for her?
Rachael sighed as he rushed off. Gideon Beiler, short on words, always in a hurry. Then again, why would he stick around to hear her waxing poetic about all things broccoli? Not exactly interesting conversation.
She should have never let him help her move the compost. She was capable of doing it herself. As it was, he gave it to her for free and didn’t charge for delivery. She shouldn’t have taken further advantage of his kindness.
Knowing he would refuse if she offered him money, she looked around the garden, desperate to find something to show her appreciation. But there wasn’t much here, except for the planted perennials, and she couldn’t give him a dug up plant. Then she spied one of the flower baskets she’d made to sell at the flea market on Monday. When she heard him returning, she grabbed the hanging basket. After he dumped the compost, he picked up the wheelbarrow by the handles. “One more trip should do it.”
“Here.” She thrust the basket in front of her. Pink petunias. Just what every man wants. She cringed.
He stared at the basket, now inches from his chest. “Um, nice flowers.”
“They’re for you.” With every word she dug a deeper hole for herself. One she wanted to disappear into. “I mean, they’re for your familye, er, your Mamm. She likes flowers, ya?” “Ya.” He took the basket from her and set it in the wagon. “She’ll like them.” He pushed the wheelbarrow.
“I just wanted to thank you…” But he was already several feet away, his long legs covering a lot of ground.
Rachael looked at the patch of violet verbena near the gate and rolled her eyes. “I should stick to talking to plants.”