The house we live in has been a rental for the last three years and it shows in the gardens that ring the backyard. They are cluttered with weeds, sprouting trees, tall grass, and several seasons worth of the dead stalks from fallen perennials. Yet amidst the neglect there remain signs of cultivation: Already this spring dozens of daffodils have sprouted; the hastas are taller every time I look at them; and there’s promise of a savannah of irises within a month’s time.
This afternoon Jay and I spent several hours cleaning up the gardens. We uprooted saplings, tugged on weeds, picked up debris and pulled out little bits of trash: an old canning jar, a rusted metal rendition of the American flag, a fallen wind chime. Jay helped in spurts. He was particularly engaged when I brought out the pruning shears; he cheered me on as I hacked away at an overgrown lilac bush.
Even when Jay wasn’t directly contributing to the effort he was a pleasure to have around. He paid close attention to what I was doing and asked good questions. I explained to him why trees have roots, why weeds are undesirable and, when I nicked my ring finger on a rock, I had the chance to demonstrate something I’ve been trying to impress upon him for a year: Not all cuts are worth crying over.
As we worked alongside each other it occurred to me that this is the kind of time I don’t often get with Jay- and maybe most American parents don’t often get with their kids.
The time I do have with Jay tends to fall into one of two categories: Either I’m dragging him along when I go to the supermarket or we’re playing cars and Legos on the floor at home. The former activities are located firmly in my world; the latter are located firmly in his. We have few experiences that you might say we’re equally enthusiastic to be a part of.
Of course, he’s not quite three-years-old, so the things we can do together are limited. But when I think about the ways that parents and kids spend time together it seems that the shared space- where an activity is neither solidly an adult activity nor solidly a child’s activity- is narrow.
Shooting from the hip here, I think the reason for this narrowness is that there’s less overlap between adult work and children’s work than there was, say, 150 years ago.
Back then, when life revolved around the family farm, there was a certain equality to everyone’s activity. But over the course of the 20th-century the activity of both adults and children grew increasingly specialized. Adult work took place away from home and took on a character that didn’t lend itself to working alongside one’s child. At the same time, children’s activity elaborated into school, specialized activities, and a whole realm of engagement that isn’t all that much fun for adults to share in (I’m thinking of the post I wrote a couple months ago about the glazed looks on parents’ faces at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum).
But, as Goldilocks might have said, working alongside Jay as we cleared a garden felt just right. I found the work stimulating and productive; he found it interesting and fun. There are not a lot of things we do together you could say that about. So, to keep a good thing going we’ve already made plans to go next weekend to a nursery in town where we plan to pick up bags of soil and cold weather vegetable seeds.
I’ve never gardened and previously wouldn’t have said it had much appeal to me. But now that I’ve gotten my hands a little dirty, it seems to me to be about the perfect way to spend an afternoon at home taking care of a kid.