Memories sharpened by grief offer glimpses of a home and a garden that were the fruits of love and labour. By Margaret Simons.

Life and memory remains in the garden

The delicate cream flowers of a native jarrah tree.
The delicate cream flowers of a native jarrah tree.
Credit: Sally Robertson / Alamy

Small childhood memories can be so vivid. More than 50 years ago, I lay in the sun on the wooden deck that my father built around our newly constructed house on the outskirts of Adelaide.

I reached out to the caterpillar climbing the grapevine that grew up one side. I stroked its tiny hairs, and it flinched. I picked it off the vine and put it in a jar. Probably, it died. Most of them did.

That deck was built of jarrah by my father, working single-handed. His choice of timber said everything about his skill and his embrace of a new nation.

We were newly arrived migrants from the United Kingdom – not ten-pound Poms, since my father had a job to come to, but the ship that brought us from Southampton was full of people who had paid that amount to be brought to the other side of the world. I was eight.

Dad had been told, correctly, that jarrah was a hardwood that stood up well to Australian conditions. He didn’t know how hard it was, how heavy, how unforgiving, or how its red sap ran like blood.

One hot, dry day, when he was building the deck, a post slipped and fell on his finger, and mashed it. I remember him hunched over the sink, head on his arms, blood running into the laundry trough while my mother prepared to drive him to hospital. It was the only time I saw him cry.

Two weeks ago, I saw that finger again – long since healed but still crooked and bearing the crazy white scar lines from that complicated break.

I was watching two of the staff in my father’s aged-care home wash his body before the undertakers came.

He was 93 years old, his death not a surprise and in season. His memories had long since slipped away. It was months since he had recognised me and years since he had remembered that house, that deck, the building of our life in Australia.

Grief seems the wrong word. Rather, I am caught up in bigness – huge thoughts and feelings and the knowledge that now I am an orphan and for the rest of my life will be looking back at my parents from the perspective of their absence, rather than their powerful presence. It feels as though I am making up for the memories my father lost.

And how many marks an old man’s body can carry.

The slightly crooked leg from an earlier break. The chafing from too much sitting in his final years. The faint line on the bridge of the nose from his glasses.

My mother built a garden around our new house in Adelaide.

The soil was heavy clay – notorious in South Australia for shrinking in the dry and swelling in the wet, which is why most houses in the new subdivision where we lived had cracks in the walls.

As soon as the builders left, Mum started to build the soil. This was long before the conventional thing for middle-class families was to hire landscapers.

As a result, her garden was in some ways like mine, despite the fact she had a quarter of an acre and I have about six square metres.

It was a mess of successes and failed experiments, a work in progress, never finished and not always beautiful.

As a child, I was mortified when she used treks into the surrounding countryside to collect cow manure. She tried to learn about Australian plants, and the garden she built was an eclectic mix, a testament both to her sense of adventure, her embrace of the new country and her homesickness.

She grew Sturt’s desert peas. She planted a willow tree. She shunned the couch grass all our neighbours grew. They told her it was drought-tolerant, but she thought it ugly. She tried to grow English grass. It never worked. My sister and I played on brown, dead grass and bare soil.

I remember weeping into the brown grass one night when I had quarrelled with my father and rushed out into the garden in fury.

Hydrangeas died in the heat. Mum tried daisies and when they failed she learnt about native daisies, grew them instead and was delighted.

She planted lemon and orange trees and never got over the wonder of being able to pick the fruit from the tree. She took photos of her lemon tree and sent them back to the family in England.

She grew grapes up the jarrah deck, once it was finished – and she was pleased when I persecuted the caterpillars that came to eat the leaves.

My father was not a gardener. He had trained as a geologist, and famously complained about plants as “obscuring the landscape”. The garden was something he walked through on the way from the house to his workshop, in which – having completed the wooden deck – he built model gliders.

Gliding and aviation were his passions. “Throw me into a thermal,” he said when he wrote his will, requesting cremation.

The week after his death his ashes were scattered from a glider flying over the great flatness of the Victorian Wimmera. I had not expected to be able to see them, but at the moment of release they made a trail against the clear blue sky, hung in the air, then disappeared.

Now that is done. And because the last few weeks have been so full, my garden is a mess. There are weeds between the brick paving in the back, as well as some volunteer parsley plants I am reluctant to pull out.

I haven’t been picking the beans, so they have grown fat and tough and now I might as well tear the vines down. The tomato plants have grown lush, but the fruit isn’t ripening. Is it because of the coolness of the summer, or is some pest eating them before they have a chance to gain colour? I haven’t been here enough to know.

My father’s remains have now, I assume, fallen to earth.

The grass, Walt Whitman wrote, was
the beautiful uncut hair of graves ...

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.

As I helped the carers wash my father’s body, I looked at my own hands, still a bit grubby because I had been gardening when they called me and told me his breathing was growing ragged and that there wasn’t long to go, and I had had only one quick shower since.

There was dirt ground into the callous on my left index finger. I had been weeding when they rang.

Would my children notice that callous, when my time came? Would they note the clipped square nails of the gardener, kept short to make them easier to scrub? This is who we are, the legacy of our bodies.

Because memories, so vivid and real, can only be contained in a living brain. And that becomes ashes, and dust.

I have lost my watchfulness over the garden. I need to reconnect, before autumn comes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Living memory".

This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.

To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.

Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription