The Accidental Parent is a column about a life-long bachelor, Michael Stusser, and his engagement to Vanessa, the mother of 11-year-old twins. The essays follow his marriage, cohabitation, and blending into a new insta-family. Be advised, it is NOT an advice column. Think of it like watching a roller-coaster. All you have to do is sit back and listen to the laughter – and a little screaming.
It started about five or six years ago when, Brooke, the little girl next door, began yelling at me from her porch.
“That’s a hydrangea,” she’d shout as I slaved in the yard. “Robins use them to decorate their nests.” “If you put that there it won’t get any sun.” “Those are seeds. If you shove a couple in the ground, they’ll come up all over.” Gardening was supposed to be a solitary opportunity to concentrate on mother nature’s wonders; instead, I was being bellowed at by a six year old Master (Sergeant) Gardener.
Brooke had watched me pull weeds, sneeze up a storm and attempt to kill my lawn for years. Eventually she mustered the courage to walk through the hedge that conveniently separates our properties and make additional inane observations, but at much closer range. Pointing out particularly colorful butterflies or helping untangle a hose, Brooke was just helpful enough to keep me from shooing her off the lot.
“I think we should start a Garden Club,” she mentioned one day. “Can you make a meeting on Saturday?” she inquired.
I told her I like to keep my weekends kinda wide open, mainly so I can sleep in. But this was a persistent kid. “How about noon?” I finally relented. “That’s a lot of sleeping.” The meeting was set.
At precisely twelve, Brooke skipped over and sat down on an overturned pot. I reclined next to her on a lawn chair with an espresso in hand. Like a seasoned Shriner, she immediately took charge of the meeting. We proceeded to take a roll call (my idea), discussed some rules (mandatory attendance), and elect a President (she won unanimously). We talked about what flowers we liked, why spiders don’t make their webs higher off the ground, and the seminar was pretty much over.
The next few weeks went by without a meeting (rain delays and several hangovers prevented me from toiling in the yard…). One day, on my way to putting out the recycling (she had the schedule down pat), Brooke pinned me for the following Saturday. This time the President was prepared: we had roll call, discussed the state of the garden (pretty good, but my lawn refused to die), followed by a brief dandelion removal project. Then Brooke announced it was time for a neighborhood “walking tour” that would feature a number of local pea patches.
Taking my hand, we visited several neighbor’s yards, and I was introduced to people I’d lived next to for years, but never spoken with. (That’s actually how I wanted it, but Brooke was breaking down more than a few barriers…opening me up to the remote possibility that youngsters were more than hyper-active noise machines.) Brooke pointed out features in other gardens that I could incorporate into my own (proper tools, sheds, water features, fruits and edible herbs, etc.). It was then I realized this child had been studying gardening for years and might be a genuine resource on the subject.
The Garden Club grew – in membership (we added her Mom – my choice – and some kid named Riley) – and frequency. We brought pictures of landscapes from magazines and books (she liked topiaries, I liked lawn chairs), and began trading groundcovers, life philosophies, and making real progress (except in killing the damn lawn…).
Many jobs involved Brooke in a supervisory role – me high on a ladder, or with a power-tool of some sort, her looking on with arched brow.
“You know what to do, right?” I’d ask for the umpteenth time.
“Call 911 if you’re unconscious or missing any limbs.”
Often the Garden Club meetings were quick – in between her family outings and my frequent naps. (This was in the days before I took on my current fiancée and her twins…) Always full of fresh ideas, Brooke came up with all sorts of agricultural projects. One day it was taking soil samples: “Not good!” she shouted at the Tupperware test tube. “Too much clay, too many potato bugs.” Another day was all about aphid spotting (and killing). Though it made her sad, she sprayed the suckers like Al Pacino in “Scarface.” (The meetings were not without humor: When pondering the reason aphids seemed only to chow newer leaves, Brooke responded, “You wouldn’t eat old chicken.”)
We even had an emergency meeting to deal with a mole wreaking havoc. Brooke (no surprise) had a solution. The mystical concoction was part Harry Potter, part Mad Max, and as effective as napalm. We mixed sugar, our own hair, leaves, salt, bubble gum (tied in a knot) and one last ingredient I promised not to divulge in a large bowl, stirred until disgusting, then dripped the mess into several mole holes. Lo and behold (and I swear this is the truth), a few days later the rodent was found lying on his back in the middle of my lawn. (A crude dissection from Riley proved the gum had done the trick.) Brooke, dismayed we killed Mr. Mole, suggested we lessen the dosage next go-round so he only “gets the message” and moves on to some other neighborhood.
Today Brooke is eleven and not nearly as interested in horticulture as boys, bikes and books. Now I wait, shovel in hand, hoping she’ll prance over to impart some much-needed wisdom and unique perspective on bug-catching, digging in the dirt and stopping to smell the roses.
I hollered over the hedge the other day about unexplained absences at a recent Club meeting.
“Oh, sorry, Justin and I went to the park on our bikes…”
Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to set a specific time for the Garden Club after all. Hate to let too much time slip by before we have another one…
Michael A. Stusser is the author of The Dead Guy Interviews (Penguin).