In my new life in the East Bay, I need a bit of green to make this rented 600-square-foot apartment my new home. On the tabletop, I have four decorative pots with succulents bought at a garden center. I re-use the plastic containers from the store to plant a few basil seeds that I’ve carried with me from my first garden in Oklahoma, three houses before this apartment.
I was 17 years old the first time I ran away from home–the night my mother threw a knife at my face. Seeing her anger rising, I’d put a table between us. The knife hit my glasses frame and landed on my right temple, touching me ever so slightly. Blood pour down on my shirt. I ran. I took a toothbrush and a hundred bolivares on my way out. It happened on a Sunday. On Monday, a new college dropout and a couch surfer, I started to build my life from scratch.
What I didn’t know then is that the process of starting over would define my next 35 years.
Soon I’d saved enough money for a down payment on an apartment. Simultaneously, I got myself knocked-up.
I roll the seeds softly between my right index finger and thumb; then place them delicately in the pot and cover them with a light layer of soil, then water carefully. There is a method to growing plants from seeds. The seeders must be placed in a warm place, sheltered from sun and wind, and kept moist.
I lost the apartment to an economic crisis in Venezuela, when I wasn’t able to keep up with soaring interest rates. I sold it at a loss and moved back to my parents’ home, carrying with me my infant child.
At 25 I started again. Exhausted from the emotional and verbal abuse of my mother, I moved with my little son to a rooming apartment in Caracas, with four other women I’d never met before. Soon the country fell on a period of social and political unrest, and I had to leave that place for safety, along with my job.
I cherish basil. It’s abundant, useful, and delicious. It’s also short lived, but the seeds can start over, again and again.
I moved to my then-boyfriend’s apartment, in what turned out to be my longest sustained period of time living in one place. We had a spectacular view of El Avila. Living in that apartment, I finished college, got married to the love of my life, and gave birth to my second son.
The apartment walls were lined with shelves of books in several languages. To the right of the love seat, a Leopard Lily swelled with its variegated, broad leaves. On the other, a Mass Cane stood five feet tall. A bonsai sat on the coffee table. Small containers with more potted plants shared the space with the books on the shelves.
When I left Venezuela for good in the summer of 1997, I gave each one of my friends a plant. I still remember them, the plants and the friends.
Canada took away my sanity, but I have sweet memories of our struggles as new immigrants with a young family. We moved there with six suitcases. While my husband look for a job, I built up our lives. I bought each object we needed to start over: forks and knives, towels, pots and pans.
I wanted roots, didn’t yet know I would never have them.
I fell in love with Canada–its diverse and peaceful society, its socialized medical system, and its spectacular outdoors in any season.
I found family doctors, took driving tests, registered my son in school, explored the neighborhood first, then the city, made friends, bought a house, planted a serviceberry tree in the yard, and a hundred tulips under the front window.
It wasn’t meant to be. Movers took eight hours to pack all our belongings, our cars included, and a month to deposit them in front of our new run-down house in the middle-class neighborhood in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. In the backyard, I hugged a silver maple, because like mine, its roots are superficial, meant to grow quickly, but not last long.
In Ponca City, I didn’t exist for the American government. Without a social security number, unable to find lawful employment, isolated in a racist and ultra conservative society, I took to gardening as my spiritual refuge. After landscaping the quarter acre grounds around the house, after installing an irrigation system, and French drainage, after planting two-foot trees selected from the Arbor Day Foundation, after planting shade gardens under the growing trees, and sun gardens along the backyard fence, there wasn’t anything else left to do, but get into vegetables.
Growing vegetables from seeds required patience, and meticulous dedication. I planted lettuce, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, beets, and experimented with corn and cucumber. What a joy to watch the seeds sprout and grow. What a sense of accomplishment to take the strongest specimens, transplant them and observe how they slowly become plants. It was basil that stole my heart.
From Ponca City to Owasso, we grew bigger and stronger with a more modern house, and a healthy financial cushion. I had started working again. My first year teaching in an American high school almost ended in a mental crisis. The next two teaching jobs didn’t give me much satisfaction, except that I saved every penny. When the second teaching job failed, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
Three intertwined wisterias curled around the poles of a white arbor above the cobble stone patio. Crape-myrtles, another maple, and an October Glory surrounded the patio. Azaleas boarded the north side of the yard. The garden was the place for brainstorming. A spacious studio with floor to ceiling windows opening to the front yard and its sunny garden inspired my six-hour daily writing sessions. From the windows, I could see the basil, and was ready to harvest before pesto-eating season.
Nothing compares to the pleasure of eating a pesto sauce with basil grown from seeds in my own yard. After harvesting once, the plants don’t yield much more. Sometime they grow back. But that’s pretty much it: a rapid growth, and abundant yield, then gone. The wise gardener collects the seeds in paper envelops before harvesting the leaves.
We moved again.
In my duplex on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Los Angeles County, a small rectangular plot in the terrace visited regularly by hummingbirds served as backdrop for my morning writing. In the afternoons I went to the gym, or to the movies, or to the beach. I found the family doctor, and the gynecologist, the dentist and the optometrist. I had my favorite grocery store, and a neighborhood hang-out to do some afternoon writing. I made friends immediately, wrote regularly, and found an encouraging and supportive writing community. I thought I had found my tribe. When my youngest son left for college, and we became empty nesters, my husband and I made plans for retirement. With almost twenty years experience starting over, I was able to bring my life back on track in just a few months.
But then my marriage crumbled. I never found a job, never unpacked the basil seeds.
With crazy glue, I put together the pieces of a once colorful, broken cup. When it dried, I filled it up with store-bought dirt. Then, I made a tiny cut in a succulent, and placed the small piece of plant in the recovered container. I gave it a home on top of the toilet tank. Before going to bed, I opened the balcony door and smelled the scent of fresh soil. I poured water on my hand to sprinkled the basil seedlings, already crowding in the plastic pot.