When I was born my parents planted a tree in our front yard. They don’t live at that house anymore, though on occasion I walk by it to wallow in nostalgia and to see how my leafy counterpart is doing.
A little while ago my Mum stayed with me, and my housemates, for a week. She’s in her fifties and doing a master’s degree. Each spring her program offers an intensive, week long in person course and as her school is just a few blocks from my house it’s a convenient, and rare, opportunity for us to spend time together, to share in each other’s lives in an intimate way
I moved out of my parent’s house when I was eighteen to a different country for school. Since then I’ve spent one summer with them, but otherwise our close relationship is sustained by a few phone calls each week, holidays, and one-off weekends either here in Toronto or at their home.
You could say I’ve spent my formative years with them, but I’d argue that my “growing up”, my most painful and most important learning, has happened without them. Which makes week long living situations particularly interesting, because the versions of ourselves we think we know today, right now, in this moment, aren’t necessarily the ones others hold on to.
I’ve recently started a garden. It’s the first one that’s all mine (there were a few years as kids I think we “shared” a garden with Dad) and it is unbelievably satisfying. My tomatos are well on their way to yielding what I hope is endless jars of sauce, the lavender I planted from a shop around the corner is so aromatic you can smell it from across the room, and my bean plants look so much like the picture perfect bean plant I wish there was a fair I could enter them in.
The satisfaction though comes from tracking their growth – they follow a pretty straightforward pattern, and with some research, a just as straightforward plan for care. There are enough variables to keep things interesting (motherfucking raccoons), but at least I know the kind of growth that’s going to happen. Water, soil, sun and one day in a few weeks a tiny little bean, or the beginning of a tomato.
People are less predictable (surprise!). If you had mentioned to my Mum ten years ago that she might think of doing a master’s she would have laughed before you could finish your thought. If you said that being laid off from my first job would shatter my innate sense of confidence, I would have stared at you in confident disbelief. We’ve come a very long way from who we were yesterday, and the day before, and the year before that.
Spending a week with my Mum reminded me of this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of her in a very specific way – as the her I knew when I was nine, or eighteen, and not taking the time to see her as she is now. We are different people and that’s made clear when looking at career trajectories or even our gardening habits (she grows flowers, and I veg). With so many shared moments between us, I couldn’t pinpoint the most important transitions in her life or even map what I think her career trajectory has been. It’s the little things in between our Christmases and week of visiting that may have had the most impact. It’s that time that boy said no, or that sweaty drunken dance party to old eighties anthems. But she doesn’t know those things, and I don’t know those things, and instead what we have is just who we are.
Maybe what’s most surprising to me is that personal growth doesn’t stop. Maybe we only notice it in fits and starts. Maybe we don’t know we’ve grown until years and years have passed and we look in the mirror one day and see someone else, someone new, looking back. Maybe we turn fifty, go back to school, spend a week with our adult daughter and get to grow with her by learning new ways to relate to one another. Maybe it’s all of this and nothing at all.
A lot has happened since my parents planted that tree twenty-four years ago, and I imagine in another twenty-four years I’ll have just as inconclusive reflections on change and growth. While my plants are growing, and my Mum is studying, and I am figuring out what I’m doing right (and wrong), I will forever wish there was a clearer plan.
Then again, maybe the answer for people, as for plants, is just some water, soil, and sun. Summer is here in Toronto and we’re all likely to grow as it turns to fall. It’s surprising how much can happen when it’s happening.