The unconditional gardener

2015-12-08 09:46
Patrick Makkink

Patrick Makkink (Supplied)

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True Stories of KZN



This is a story about my sister Catherine. It is a rare and gentle example of using what you have to make the world a better place — quietly and with an old-fashioned kind of industry and modesty. It is a story that I have told to my children several times, one which has become part of our family folklore.

Someone told me once that a parable is simply an opinion piece with a timeless and universal lesson. If this is so, I would like to believe that this story is also a parable. Read it and decide for yourself.

During most of the eighties and nineties, my sister Catherine lived in various places in Durban.

One of the things that Catherine did (between working part-time and raising a family of five children) was to garden. If there wasn’t a garden on the property they were living on, she would create one. If there was, she would make it better.

And the way she went about it stayed pretty much the same. She would quietly take charge of things, spending some time in the garden in the afternoons, and a bit more on the weekends. The shapes of new flower beds were laid out using a garden hose, and slips were cut from existing plants to regrow elsewhere. Sometimes a few plants were moved to create balance and space, and if necessary some modest purchases were made from a nearby nursery. Catherine’s gardens were always beautiful, and they always flourished.

But the real lesson, the hard part, if you will, doesn’t lie in the gardens themselves. It lives in the conditions and circumstances under which they were created. It is not an accident that the word unconditional is included in the title of this piece.

You see, not all the homes that my sister and her family lived in were their own; in fact, most of them were rented. One of these was on a year-long lease, while the owners prepared to sell. This was a property with no garden to speak of, on a piece of ground that moving in Catherine knew neither herself nor her family would ever benefit from. But she created a garden anyway.

Another, the communal garden of a complex, was in serious decline, squarely a consequence of the collective neglect and disinterest of the people who lived there. But Catherine resurrected it anyway, and like all her gardens, it flourished and was beautiful.

As an allegory this isn’t a difficult story to work out. Gardens represent the places and people that we meet along our life’s journey. The lesson is that we should take time to engage, cultivate, love and nurture all we encounter, with little consideration of personal circumstance or reward. This is how my sister gardens and lives her life.

It’s not an easy thing to do, and one that has taken me over 20 years really to understand. While I always admired Catherine’s generosity of spirit, I had serious misgivings about the unconditional nature of what she did. Her disregard for any personal gain or returns on the time, energy, skills, love and care she invested in those gardens seemed to lack discernment. As a strategy, it didn’t even fare very well on that well-worn and seemingly universal axiom of life — “what you put in is what you get out”. In fact, expectations of getting something out aren’t part of this equation at all.

I really didn’t get it.

But I think that age and the loss of loved ones has brought some clarity. I think that Catherine has been right all along. Returns on investments are the business of money people and bankers, and double-entry bookkeeping the practice of accountants. I believe that ultimately — between being born and dying, between ourselves and our creator — what is really going to count is what we put in, as we go along, each and every step of the way. That is the opinion of this piece — the lesson of “unconditional gardening”, a lesson from my sister.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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