My earliest family memories are that of a ‘typical’ child. My family was comprised of a dad, a stay-at-home mom, and a little sister. Pictures on the first day of school were taken in front of the house near a flower bed, riding an Allpro bike from K-Mart that I bought with my own money. We spent easy summers camping and boating. Safety, security and a large circle of friends shared it all.
In the blink of an eye, it all changed forever. I woke up that Sunday morning, unusually hurried by my Grandma to get dressed to be taken home. Without a clue what I was headed for, we made the long journey from the Westend to the Heights in near silence. When we pulled up to the house, I saw the car of every person we knew and thought “we must be having a party?”
The look in the eyes of those who filled the house told me something else. I learned that day that there had been a car accident and that my dad did not survive the crash. I couldn’t breathe. The blunt force trauma of that news changed me at an almost cellular level. Everything about me and the way I perceived my environment was different. The temperature, the color of the sky, all familiarity was gone.
I found comfort in the care that people showed. I searched for something familiar, a place, a smell, anything, to no avail. I learned how to survive in my new world but longed for a return to the way it was.
Sometime later, we stopped at Gainan’s for some flowers to take to the cemetery. Through some chain of events, one evening a guy named Mickey pulled up in the driveway for a visit. Cautiously, I accepted his happiness to meet us. A few months of cynical observation ensued. The guy drove a big brown Ford pickup with a weird little painting on the front quarter panel with a guy holding up his larger-than-life green thumb with words saying ‘the Plant man’. Disturbing on several levels, the cartoon decal was sort of creepy and my Dad sold GMCs so that was the first strike against him.
I began to realize that his presence was bringing me great relief and the type of pickup he had really didn’t matter much. When we were with him in public I could pass through the watchful eyes of strangers as a typical family again. The picture wasn’t a single mom and her two small children any longer. It was, at least on the outside, normal again.
Fast forward nearly 32 years later with every up and down you can imagine, and I still marvel how ‘the Plant Man’ hung in there. Through my own experience with fatherhood and step-fatherhood, I’ve gained a completely different view of the gardener and the role he filled. So what do you get a guy for Father’s Day who doesn’t wear ties? How about a short gardening column? “Yes, that’s it!”
What I’ve learned from ‘the Plant Man’:
Take what you’re given. Without hesitation, embrace what you have been given and make the most of it. Mick understood this. He didn’t try to make me into something he wanted. He just let me be me. While in earlier years he may have hoped for a quarterback or tall basketball player, I was neither. Being all of 5’1″ until I was a senior in high school and uncoordinated until last week, he had to settle for an Alex P. Keaton-type kid who would become the editor of the school newspaper, voted ‘teachers pet’ and ‘most likely to marry’ by his senior class.
Complement, don’t replace. Geraniums don’t do well in the shade! To completely rip up a yard to complete a personal vision would discount the thought and planning that went into the landscape by previous gardeners. Adding new perspective while working with what was there creates an established-looking landscape with hope. The changes or new plantings then complement the overall landscape without replacing it.
Protect new plantings. The environment can be harsh for a young ‘plant’. Mick understood this. His presence protected me from the cruelties of life. He made sure that I was able to strive for more, to grow and change, but, he also made sure that a dead tree limb didn’t fall on me. It was a lot of work but full of possibilities.
Never quit trying. Disappointments can make you want to quit, but hanging in there ensures a harvest. Many times I challenged Mick, pushed his buttons and created chaos. What I was really doing is testing him. Somehow I thought accepting him was showing dishonor to my early years. A couple of failures in the garden certainly don’t mean you’re a bad gardener. You may just need some help trying to understand the needs of new plants. Every morning without fail he started over with a smile and that Disneyland-ish Mickey Mouse “Good Morning Bud!” that I just sort of grumbled “morning” to with astonishment.
Find the Greater Purpose. Great rewards come from great work. Many times Mick told me that ‘we’ gave him a reason for being. He found purpose in his role as a gardener. It wasn’t to impress anyone with how wonderful he was. Rather, his focus was on keeping his eye on the prize, doing routine maintenance and adding a few mind-blowing surprises along the way to keep things fun. The payoff for him is that he now has a family…a great wife, a couple of kids who appreciate him and grandchildren to share the joys and pain of life with. Becoming a gardener isn’t to create a great yard. The yard is to create a great gardener.
Share. Gardeners love to share…a divided perennial, knowledge and beauty. Mick is the type of guy that shares his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with someone who forgot their lunch at home. He will patiently explain how to do something in a way that most would find challenging. He’s a gifted salesperson and has been known to twist a few arms; he also knows that you can’t convince someone to buy something. You have to understand what people want or need and provide it for them so that they can continue their journey of growth.
Reap the rewards. Who doesn’t love to look at the beauty of their yard or the taste of the tomatoes they grew? All of that work finally pays off. Suddenly that little tree that was planted is now standing tall on its own, with its own unique purpose. Gardeners receive the gift of watching that happen.
What I learned from Mick is that gardening/life is not about perfection. The joy is in the middle, it’s digging a big hole in the rain, getting muddy, throwing the tree in the hole and running inside to watch a movie or have something to eat. Then, years later when you look at that tree, whether you still live in that house or you just drive by, the lesson is there because that memory remains.
Gardeners take care of things that they didn’t create, they nurture, protect, learn along the way and then they let go. I can’t help but think that fatherhood is a lot like that.
Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan’s Flower and Garden Center in Billings. Questions or comments? Email Jim Gainan @ jim@https://www.gainans.com/.