The Garden as Prayer

Gardening is a way of talking to God and leaving a transcript behind.

Posted Feb 28, 2020

Patricia Prijatel
A photo Dad took while he was still building the garden. The dark swath in the middle is a pond.
Source: Patricia Prijatel

It was the summer of 1936 and Eddie was building a garden to climb up the back hill and fill his mother’s view with flowers. Eddie would later become my dad, nicknamed Big Ed at the steel mill where he worked—a tall, dominating figure, as uncompromising as the nails he made. Back then, though, he was a 24-year-old son of a mother who was dying.

“I just started building” is how he usually began the story.

“It took him all summer,” Mom always added.

“For Mama,” he’d say. No matter how old he was, she remained his Mama.

I used to play in the garden, a maze of rock walls and flower beds covering the steep slope behind the house where he lived with his parents until he married Mom and built us our own house. The garden was a marvel of workmanship. Prototypical Dad: strong, exacting, and precise.

I imagined it a castle. I envision my grandmother watching wall after wall grow on her hillside, her oldest son sweating in the dry southern Colorado sun, her weedy, dusty hillside being transformed into a work of art. The garden was a feat of engineering and an act of devotion.

It was also calm and peaceful, the opposite of the man I knew growing up—often impatient and angry at the life he lived as a steelworker and father of five, a life that didn't always meet his expectations or his abilities. But gardens have a way of softening people. Gardens have a way of becoming prayers.

He carried the rocks from the river a quarter of a mile away using a wheelbarrow and, occasionally, some relative or other’s old truck. The river had smoothed the rocks to ovals the color of cinnamon and chestnuts, and he turned them into walled planters, one rising above the other. He cemented the rocks and reinforced the walls with chicken wire, as he’d learned working with the WPA. In the middle, he added a pond, fed by a hose at the top of the hill.  

It was labor. It was love. It was holy.    

“If you’re going to do something, do it right,” he’d say at some point in the story, and at many points in my life.

He filled the beds with pansies and petunias from the neighbors. In a corner, he planted a lilac. When he was finished, he carried his mother out to the yard, placed her on a chair in the sun next to the pond, holding her hand as they both saw, smelled, felt the garden. She was failing, and he knew the cancer would soon kill her, but the garden was an act of regeneration, a call for the hope of resurrection.

“I remember that like it was today,” Dad would say, with a deep, sad sigh, an old man remembering his mother, who never had the chance to become an old woman.

In August, the doc said there was nothing more he could do for Mama. The cancer was everywhere.

In September, Eddie met Connie, a tall beauty with eyes as deep as the earth. As winter came, Eddie and Connie cleaned the rock beds of withered flowers. Neighbors crossed themselves as they walked by and nodded somberly at the young couple, knowing that in the tiny house at the bottom of the hill, Mama was living her last season. In December, Ed and Connie were married, a simple ceremony with Mom in a suit and jaunty hat. No interest in a big wedding with Mama so sick; no money for it either. In January, Eddie sat on his mother’s sickbed, holding her pale, thin hand in his large, calloused one, feeling her life falter, then stop. Connie, his wife of three weeks, sat next to him, quietly praying the rosary.

When they buried Mama three days later, Eddie sprinkled some of the garden’s soil on her grave. In April, he and Connie brought her a bouquet of lilacs, the garden continuing to honor Mama. Connie was now pregnant with the first of their five children, of which I am the youngest. Each of us, our children and their children, still visit the grave of the grandmother we never knew. And we still bring flowers.

For 80 years that garden has stood on that hillside, function and beauty, ungiving rocks and gentle, yielding flowers. Dad’s only sister moved into the house and raised her children there, adding on and updating it into the homey bungalow I loved to visit. My cousin and her son live there now, so the house and the garden, have stayed in the family. Sometimes the garden flowers, sometimes it doesn't. Sort of like life.

Dad died in 1995, three years after Mom. But when we see the garden, we see him. When we touch the rocks, we touch him.

The garden is the prayer Dad left behind, the alleluia of nature. It's a prayer of thanks and of celebration, his way of talking to God and leaving a transcript behind. He was not what we consider a prayerful man and I doubt he thought he was praying as he built a gift of beauty for the mother he loved. I suspect he snuck in a few Please Gods in there, pleading with the divine to interfere and cure Mama, to at least save her pain. God, as often is the case, did not answer in the way he wanted and, who knows, that disappointment might have been what kept him away from religion most of his life. The more I learn of his life, and the longer I live mine, the more I understand his anger and frustration. This early loss was one root of a pain he didn't know how to express.

But one summer, when his mother still breathed life, he expressed himself in action and built a place of honor that remains a blessing to those of us who never met the woman for whom it was created. Dead rocks now live, a fallow hillside became a garden because of his act of reverence. That seems as good a definition of prayer as I can find and a reminder that the least overtly prayerful among us are likely the most eloquent and spiritual.

You might also enjoy my earlier post "You Never Get Lost In This Ancient Exercise"