The garden is his domain, and everything in it his subjects. Out there, we know not to tangle or disturb. We are visitors. We fall in the shadow of his footsteps.
In all languages, the trees have this to say of him:
He is a gentler soul than most. His steps are light.
To see him now, one would not think him much of a leader. Where my grandmother directs and cajoles, my grandfather only listens. His newspaper held up to his face, foot tapping in rhythm with our words.
These days, I visit my grandparents once a year, and only for three nights, counting each down as I lie on the bare mattress with my husband. Three nights without cable, without Internet, without hardly a word of spoken English. But the quiet becomes a flood in my veins and I can hear myself again.
My grandfather takes us on a tour of his yard on the first evening of each visit. He points out every new growth, remembering exactly what he showed us last year.
Around the perimeter of his yard is a row of trees—peach, cherry, and apricot—standing together like leafy soldiers. Their fruit reminds me of tiny marzipan, all color and nostalgia, without much taste. Tall sunflowers graze my arms, the light fuzz on their stems brushing my skin. When we pass the herbs, my grandfather grabs a bunch in his hand and holds it up to my nose. Mint and Thai basil and spicy cilantro. I squeeze the leaves between my fingertips to release their scent, and when I lift my hands to my nose, I smell the meals of my youth.
There are the things in his garden I recognize. A lattice of grapes, clusters of white roses. Melons and chili peppers. A little lime tree. And then there are the plants that only have Vietnamese names, guttural monosyllables I don’t understand.
My grandfather fumbles for the English words, making a gesture of supplication. “You know. You know what this is.”
I shake my head.
“My corn didn’t grow this year,” he tells us abruptly. “It doesn’t last in this weather.”
This weather is the hot July of Georgia, where sweat is coaxed from every pore, running in syrupy paths down my neck. This was never my home, only the place where my grandparents landed at last, thousands of miles away from our An Giang province in Vietnam. They like their friendly street and their big, drafty house. I consider it another stopover during the holidays.
Not much is made to grow in this weather, but my grandfather manages to coax all sorts of things anyway: foot-long squashes, watermelons with thin, yellow-streaked rinds. Grapes that capture the warmth of the season under their skins.
“Do you remember,” he starts, watching me pluck a grape.
I do. I remember a day like this, the two of us barefoot in our garden in Vietnam. I was five and perched on his shoulder, surrounded by curling vines. His shirt was damp, and there was a hole near his clavicle. “Listen,” he said. “The wind is talking to us.”
Squinting at the sun, I push time backwards, so that we can be cast into our younger selves, standing under a trellis all the way across the world.
Who knows what he dreams of? When he waters the lawn, his glasses get wet. He holds the hose with one hand and taps his stomach with the other.
There is wisdom in my grandfather’s ways. His meanderings amongst the plants and flowers feel like a thing apart, something without language—and thus, something I haven’t learned.
When he was a boy, his parents died and he and his siblings were all sent to surrounding villages. They became maids and errand boys, the poor cousins peeping somberly from a Dickens novel. It wasn’t until my grandfather married my grandmother that he had a home of his own.
I imagine him planting his first seeds, pushing aside the dirt with his fingertips. Did he imagine his whole life in that place, under those trees? The scramble of children and grandchildren, unmoored in those sleepy afternoons, his wife walking to him under an archway of leaves.
But first came the Communists, who took his land and his business, sending him to a prison cell for his excess. “You thought you had it all,” they sneered. Two years and towers of paperwork later, his house belonged to him again. But how could it ever feel the same?
I remember that home with its swell of mosquitoes, its rampant overgrowth. It was a jungle for us, all prickly ferns and swampy grass. There is a picture of me standing in the yard. The grass grows higher than my head. A bridge curves behind me and a stream of water creases the ground. I’m a bird, an insect that’s just alighted. I’m part of that wilderness.
I took my first steps in Vietnam. Learned my first words there. I saw the world from my grandfather’s shoulders, peering around and around, as if the world ended at the horizon of my sight.
Then came America, a second home. My grandfather became a citizen of the world, with plenty to call his own. He took a suitcase and a family with him. He began a new garden. I settled in, always a step behind him.
When the frost comes, he brings the potted plants inside, shuffling through the cold to gather them. He drapes the trees with blue plastic and bundles their trunks with flannel blankets.
Two days after receiving the keys to my new home—my first home—I survey my yard, feeling an insurmountable pride at the arching trees, the clusters of hydrangeas spilling onto our picture windows. I like the way the branches brush against our clay roof.
Never mind that my husband and I know how to do next to nothing around the house. Never mind that we can’t name a single tree that we own. Flush with pride, we think it’s the owning that counts.
Soon after we moved in, a neighbor came over to introduce himself, pointing to a tidy house next door. There was a basketball hoop in the backyard, a sleek green convertible in the driveway. It was one of those homes without a detail out of place. A show home.
And they are all around, each more beautiful than the last, each sitting on a half acre of land that seems plucked straight from a home and garden magazine.
Houses look different in Ohio. They sit on wide lawns set back from the road—Colonials and Victorians and a Cape Cod or two, framed by old trees that droop in late summer and stiffen into cold, spindly silhouettes in the winter. I grew up around ranch homes that seemed to flatten under the sun.
My mother once asked me how I could live in Ohio. She said it was too cold there. What she meant was that it was too far from her.
Standing with my new neighbor, I felt a tinge of alarm. I didn’t know exactly how I had gotten there.
“Everyone has such manicured lawns!” I cried, anxious to make conversation.
Maybe it was the word “manicured,” which might not be one used anymore, or maybe my tone was too revealing and gauche.
The neighbor ignored me. We spoke of the school districts, the neighborhood cats—not strays—and the café down the street. My leg brushed against a spiny fern. I thought it was pretty, the way the leaves bristled into a star pattern, then yellowed at the tips, as if dipped in pollen. Something Van Gogh would have painted.
“Oh, you’ll want to pull those,” the neighbor said. “They’ll kill your garden.”
At a cost, I admit that I know nothing about the plants I own. I know nothing about the land I live on.
The family calls him inside every day, all day, as if food and sleep matter to him. He’d stay outside in the moonlight if he could, sinking right into the ground.
Once, not long after I was married, my grandfather tricked me into picking a fertility melon. He handed me a pair of outdoor shears.
“For dinner,” he said. “Just a snip.”
These melons were pale green on the outside. They sat in varying sizes against a miniature white fence. I stooped, cut the vine, and held one up for inspection.
My grandfather smiled, picturing a great-granddaughter swinging through his garden, smashing the weeds with her strong steps.
Later, my mother would tell me the folklore—the belief that a woman could increase her chances of conceiving if she harvested such a melon.
“Do you know where I got the seeds?” my grandfather asked. “I ate a melon in Saigon. Dried those seeds and took them with me.”
With a nod, he spat a seed back into the dirt.
My family is like that. They are cultivators of the foreign and impossible. My mother begs for ripe chili peppers from a restaurant on the coast of Vietnam, then grows them in her Florida suburb, where they pile up in droves, all fiery red spikes, until she has to give them away in recycling bins.
The plants have no choice but to grow under these circumstances. Such hope. A world of longing.
I have moved ten times in the past ten years. Each time, my books come with me, and my jewelry. A prom dress from 2002. Sometimes, a boyfriend, a husband. I’m fortunate that my world is so easily transportable.
But at the end of a move, there is the stillness of a late night and another empty room left to fill. I reach for the breadth of my grandfather’s garden. The plenitude of color and smells. The weight of history. This far away, I can’t seem to find my way back and I don’t know how to start forward.
One day, he rescued a tortoise from the road. He fed it lettuce and water. Months later, when it died, he watched the hollow shell spin on the driveway.
I received a bulky package in the mail—insured for delivery. I noticed the lines of my grandfather’s handwriting, strict and beautifully controlled. I shook the package. A tiny clatter.
A medicine bottle spilled into my hands.
The bottle contained two dozen, maybe more, bright red seeds, some enveloped in pale husks.
They were simply labeled: Cherry Trees.
Not seeds, for in my grandfather’s eyes, they were already full-grown. The word carries an importance and responsibility I am not ready for.
Months ago, when I first showed my family photos of my new home, they noticed different things. My mother loved the white kitchen. My grandmother asked if it was bigger than her house. But my grandfather traced the edges of my photos, his eyes wandering back to one.
“That yard,” he said. “I love your yard.”
In his note, he told me not to eat the seeds.
He uses fish bones and broken crab claws as fertilizer. They drip through the newspapers, fermenting in a narrow path behind him.
Growing up, my grandfather had this to say to me:
“Take the land with you. Don’t forget it.”
He’d say it as he watched me on the first days of school, as I swung on our backyard swing in America, spitting sunflower seeds on the ground below.
Then, “land” was such a spiraling concept to me, one without borders or weight. Light as air.
Now he doesn’t say that anymore, not in so many words. He sends trees instead.
I remember one afternoon, when I was seven or eight, an age that is inexplicably illuminated for me. I had fallen asleep on a bench, my cheeks red from heat. When I woke, I found my grandfather contemplating the pigeons.
“Why do they want to fly away? They have everything they need here,” he said.
I stood next to him, my heels dug in the dirt. A dry-looking lizard skittered somewhere in my periphery.
“I would want to be free too,” I said. “I’d want to go home.”
At first there was silence, the kind I thought signaled the end of the conversation, and I was already anxious to get back to my books and a half-eaten can of Pringles. I began weaving back towards the house.
Then my grandfather said, “They don’t even know what home is.”
I looked back to see him leaning to wipe a spider web from the corner of the cage. In the sun, silvery threads glistened against his hand.
Every year, he seems to get smaller. He grows inward and backward.
Next spring, my husband and I will find a place for the cherry seeds. We will clear the debris and the unidentified shrubbery. In its place will be the quiet promise of my grandfather’s trees.
But not now. Now I hear the sound of my neighbor’s mower, the rustle of a late-summer breeze.
We have just spent the morning pulling weeds from our yard. We dug through the cracks in our patio for patches of clover and yanked ivy from the side of our house.
“Pull anything that looks like it doesn’t belong,” my husband said.
But to my unfamiliar eyes, everything seemed like it belonged. Everything except us, wearing too-bright white sneakers that catch the light, clumsy with our oversized gardening gloves.
In my mind, I see my grandfather in Georgia, working outside in the garden, the fat yellow bumblebees alighting on his hair. He will be out there for another two, three hours, until the sun slips beneath the horizon, and nothing is left for him to tend.
His cherry seeds sit in the Tylenol bottle in my office. I worry that they will dry or rot. I worry that I can’t get to them fast enough. That they won’t take root, knowing that they do not belong here.