A Canadian essayist’s account of how rehabilitating an abandoned garden helped her to better understand her hard-shelled Ukrainian-born parents.
In her first book, Risen chronicles how she and her husband decided to buy the “anonymous hidden house” with the overgrown garden shortly after her always-silent father died. The house was the least of their renovation worries, however; it was the junglelike garden that they knew would make the greatest demands on their time and budget. Yet the author relished the challenge, in part because the one-acre plot—located minutes from downtown Toronto—made her feel closer to the gardener-mother who always seemed to keep her at arm's length. As she began her landscape renovation project, her mother’s health declined rapidly. Risen soon realized that she would never be able to share her garden—with its duck pond, broken-down pagoda, secret paths, and hidden wildlife—with her too-frail, increasingly demented mother. The project also brought up memories of the life she had shared with her parents. The small river that ran through her property recalled the river to which she would escape as a youth, and apple trees she discovered in her garden recalled her mother’s cooking. The more that Risen worked on her garden, the more she realized that her task was not to transform it into a neatly manicured landscape but one that respected the local ecology. Learning to bring sustainable order to her patch of earth as well as uncovering family documents that offered clues to her parents’ difficult early lives helped the author come to terms with her mother and father. She could not change the people who raised her; she could only accept them and know that they “did the best they could.” Interspersed throughout with recipes for forager-style dishes and desserts, Risen’s book is as much a celebration of nature and family as it is feast for the heart and soul.
A generous, poignant memoir.