Mrs. Kolpin

One of my first jobs was raking leaves for an unhappy woman. She stood there in those awful, beige shapeless orthopedic shoes, arms crossed across her chest. Everything about Mrs. Kolpin was drab. Her hair was pulled back, mousey brown streaked with grey. Her cardigan was dark navy or dirty brown--really, it doesn’t matter. It was the scowl and the dismissiveness of her voice when she spoke to me and my brother.

“You’re done? You haven’t finished raking this yard.”

The elation of completing the job with Andy floated away into the gray autumn evening. The warmth we’d created raking the square plot, surrounded by what I now know to be hostas, was sucked away into the night sky and by Mrs. Kolpin’s harsh judgment of our work. We thought we had done what we’d set out to do. We’d raked the leaves and, in our youthful exuberance, mentally spent the money Mom didn’t make us put into our savings account.

And so, resignedly, we bent back down. We raked some more, clearing out the beds that lined that small yard, that was as lackluster as Mrs. Kolpin’s outfit. Mrs. Kolpin’s sadness and drabness was a dementor-like sucking of joy. It pervaded every aspect of her life. How hard had her life been, how miserable, to be so cold to two neighbor kids she’d never met in person? Her unhappiness was so pervasive, that despite the money we earned, I gave up that line of work for babysitting.

Funny how now that my kids are nearing babysitting age, my focus has returned to gardens, to raking through leaves and thriving on what’s beneath the plants. I’ve learned in the intervening years that raking up the fallen leaves like I did for Mrs. Kolpin is not enough. You must find what nourishes you.

I wonder if even a small, humble pot of pansies or petunias would’ve let light back into her view out her backdoor. Would these cheery garden neighbors have colored her perspective? Maybe if she’d had a happier yard, she’d have been more approachable, agreeable. If she’d just stepped into the river of gardening she’d have learned that swimming upstream starts with one stroke and then follows with another. With every stroke, you’re that much farther upstream. It’s tiring work, but there’s a value in finding hidden reserves to complete the swim.

So it is with a drab, lifeless yet overgrown garden. The first stroke of the pruners begins the swim. Each weed pulled, plant divided, or lost plant found is one more pull towards the destination. I can feel the endorphins kick in when I happen upon a plant struggling to hold its place under ivy. The edge of a forgotten flower bed taken over by sod causes euphoria, the type that tells me to keep pulling back at weeds to see what once was and what can be again.

Maybe Mrs. Kolpin didn’t feel these emotional waves when she stepped out her back door. Maybe you don’t, either. But maybe, just maybe, if you dip your toe in the water and start with something small, you will discover the head rush waiting for you in the garden.