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It is nearly mothers day and you have been gone almost five years. Your brothers, your sister and I miss you every day.
This week I planted two big vegetable gardens in the small back yard that used to be your dad’s, and I hauled in heavy bags of compost and mulch to fix the gritty soil back there. I am getting older and ache all over the next day when I go on a gardening binge, but it’s worth it. When I’m in the garden, squatting down in the dirt, I feel forty, twenty, ten. I inhale the scent of all that has gone before and returned to dust, and I know something will come of this work — a seedling, a plant, a flower to be pollinated, a warm tomato, a dried-out stalk to throw into the compost.
I found an old picture of you and put it on the bulletin board where I can see it whenever I go out the back door. You are about four years old. It is summer and your black hair is shimmering in the sun. You are wearing an orange Hawaiian print shirt and your black eyes peer out from behind a lacy bunch of marigolds and their stems; the flowers are the same color as your shirt. You used to go to my flower beds and pull up the whole plant to bring me flowers. Thank you for that.
I read a cool thing this morning — that the taproots of sunflowers in urban gardens pull heavy metals and lead from the polluted soil. I will plant sunflowers against the fence as soon as the soil is warm enough, maybe next week. Do you remember the year we planted a sunflower house? Tall sunflowers with morning glories snaking up their prickly stalks. You and your brothers made forts of them in our back yard.
Also this week, Maurice Sendak died. You were a great fan, gnashing your terrible teeth and roaring your terrible roars as we read Where the Wild Things Are at least a thousand times. You were like Max, solitary and adventurous. I have another picture of you at about age six. You are standing next to a lake, I think it is Radnor Lake in Nashville where you liked to chuck big rocks into the water. In this picture, you are holding a large pair of binoculars and you are wearing your dad’s Army hat. You look ready for an adventure.
Maurice Sendak was born the same year as your grandmother. He was old, and in a radio interview recorded last year but played this week when he died, he said he didn’t mind being old, he loved looking out his window at the huge, 200-year old trees in his Connecticut yard; he liked being old enough to take the time to do that. But he said he cried a lot because he missed the people who had died before him so much — especially his brother.
Do you remember Higglety Pigglety Pop!? It was your big sister’s favorite. The complete title was Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life. We read it many times at your grandmother’s house. In the book, a dog named Jennie leaves home and never returns. When the houseplant asks her why she is leaving, after all she has everything a dog could want, Jennie says: “I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything.” And so she leaves for her life’s adventure.
At the end of the book, Jennie sends her old master a letter. “I can’t tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder, because I don’t know where it is,” she says. “But if you ever come this way, look for me.”
Earlier this week, I threw out some withered iris — the beautiful deep purple ones that smell like grape Popsicles. I’d cut them one morning from the neighbor’s fence row and put them in a vase. They were beautiful but didn’t last long. When I opened the kitchen compost container this morning to throw in the coffee grounds, I was stunned to see a perfect, just bloomed iris lying there among the eggshells and potato peels. I had thrown away a stem with a bud on it, and even in the darkness, beneath the kitchen sink, it had claimed its beauty.
I miss you, Teddy. I look for you everywhere and can sometimes see you in the Castle Yonder, even if I don’t know where it is.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.