A Plant In My Family’s Garden
by Hope Gobron
I am three years old and my mother is potting plants in my grandmother’s house where we lived at that desperate time, and as she carefully lowers the plants one by one into their new cocoons, I knock them over. Dirt is escaping all over the tile floor of this suburban kitchen and I am laughing, laughing, laughing. We live here in Norwood, Massachusetts, because of my mother’s accidental pregnancy with me. This would be our last year in this house with the dogwood tree in the front and the ant-covered peonies in the back. I knock each newly potted plant over one by one; every time she fills them back up; every time she pats down the dirt; every time she puts each one aside as though it’s a child she will watch grow up over the years. I knock them all down.
I grew up knowing my family history, vaguely, but there was no room for severity in the still developing frontal lobe of my brain (the area in my skull that throbs violently whenever I make a painful adolescent mistake) and so the reality of my approaching fate was like a buoy in the distance—a landmark of no meaning. Although lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night due to a sharp stab in my chest, the craving for a cold beer, and nightmares of my hands disintegrating before me as though they, too, have given up.
I am fifteen years old and my mother finds me passed out in a graveyard only a block out of the small town of Northampton where I spend most of my time. Behind a headstone she sees me slumped, shirt pulled awkwardly across my body, barely conscious, with cheap water bottles all around me that reek of vodka. My little sister watches as I am carried to the car and taken home. “Don’t be like this,” she tells my eleven-year-old sister, “don’t be like our family.” I don’t recall getting home. I am told I had chairs placed around our wood stove in case I woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled into it like a fly going towards the light or one of those ants from Norwood getting lost in the peony petals, forever running in circles.
When I look in the mirror, I see my mother except with less worry and more recklessness as I am told she was at my age. I see my grandmother’s jawline and the way we both always keep our hands busy. When I look in the mirror, I see purple circles under the hazel eyes we all share. I see years I have not lived.
I am sixteen years old and the September wind is cold on my face. It’s been almost a month since I’ve had a drink and almost a month since I’ve seen the majority of my friends. After a long day with my mother and a close friend, we are dropping the friend off in town at the spot where my fellow delinquents and I usually park ourselves. This is an area in town that, for some unknown reason, has forever been a safe haven from the police and parents while only minutes away from downtown. Under the street lamps and the eerie setting sun, my friends sag, passing cigarettes and drinking from soda bottles filled with cheap liquor. I beg my mother to let me at least say hello. “For Christ sake it’s been so long,” I plead. “It’ll only take a moment.”
My heart feels proud as I approach my crew of rowdy friends. I am no longer one of these people, I tell myself, I am better than they are. One girl runs to me immediately, drunkenly exclaims her love and confusion over my disappearance, and thrusts a bottle into my hands.
Withdrawal is one of those things that you don’t always see coming. Withdrawal is a headache and heartache all at once, a secret and the burning desire to get it out, it’s the monster under your bed that you pretend isn’t there just to prove to your parents you are a big girl. I quickly explain to the friend that I have already been drinking; I have somewhere better to be; I have a drink of my own thank-you-very-much. Bullshit.
I’m eighteen and home from college for winter break. This is when I realize that knowing family history and being family history are very different experiences. My grandmother, who has suffered from cigarette addiction, gambling, and hoarding, is telling me about all the relatives on her side of the family whom I’ve never met. The cokeheads, the alcoholics, the individuals spread across the states I will never know, and they will never know me, but with whom I share DNA. She shows me photos while we munch on diner food and my heart aches. “Will I be just one of these stories?” I wonder. “Is this how my siblings and cousins will talk about me?” I let my grandmother talk for as long as she needs while I sip water to cure the hangover I’m currently experiencing. In the car on the way home, I cry silently to myself.
I’m almost nineteen years old and everyday I question how long it will be until I am old enough to take care of myself, or should I say, care for myself. I bought a lavender plant for my apartment to remind me of home and remind me to take care of myself as much as the plant. Without the adult supervision I had before, college has been a blur of broken bottles and other cheesy, but true, clichés. I test how much my body can take; how much alcohol, how much stress, how little sleep, how little food. My lavender plant has died. I work thirty hours a week to support buying a twenty dollar bottle every two or three days, and any leftover money pays my rent. I think about my mother and grandmother daily but am too embarrassed to call them. I fear I will betray the reality of my life through imaginary tremors in my voice. I imagine different futures for myself. In one I am a successful artist, teaching kids or making political murals. I have a beautiful family and a husband who likes to cook. On weekends we go to open mics and admire the youth reciting poetry or singing songs. I have a garden. The other future is bleaker. I work in some restaurant as a waitress and my husband is even more of a drunk than myself if he’s even in the picture. I have kids who struggle in school because of stress at home, but I don’t have enough time to help them with their homework. I work late nights on weekends and we usually eat leftovers or cheap Chinese in front of a TV screen. I tried to have a garden but it died like my lavender plant.
Of these two possible futures I sometimes wonder which one my family sees in me. After seeing me at my very worst, do they still believe that I could emerge as a functional adult? The plants my mother potted back in Norwood, Massachusetts, in my grandmother’s little brick house with the dogwood tree in the front yard, are still alive in their pots on her porch. That house has now been sold after my grandmother lost all her money due to gambling, and the tree has been cut down, but the potted plants have been carefully watered and fed sunlight everyday. Plants are easier to take care of than children. They don’t run around with older plants getting into trouble, come home past curfew, or soak their roots in stolen beer. One day, whichever future I end up with, I will thank my mother for trying, my grandmother for the warnings, and apologize that I was not born a plant.
Hope Gobron is nineteen-year-old art student at Santa Barbara City College in California. Her work A Plant In My Family’s Garden was written as a project in a deeply inspiring Creative Writing course she took this spring semester with professor and writer David Starkey.