Papa had the curious custom of planting a seed in the garden of our home after every person who had grown dear to him. The garden is a habitat to flowers and trees that have since sprouted and come to fruition out of these seeds of endearment. The choice of plants was not random, nor was it for the landscape and fragrance they brought to the garden. He believed that each of us have spirit mate, a soulmate, in the plant world; of the human and the plant, the plant is the closer to the spirit; the plant is the prophet of the spirit. If we could but only listen, papa often said, we could hear the messages of guidance from the spirit.
Mommy’s spirit plant is a no-brainer. “Olive for Liv,” he would say, “ “and for the peace, glory she has always been to me”.
Grandma, whom he said had persevered through a lot with dignity and grace to bring him and his sister up, was ‘magnolia tree in human flesh’. The maple tree by her side is grandpa, for grandpa had always meant strength and endurance.
My maternal grandma has the hawthorn for the love and protection she had been to mommy. Grandpa has a presence in the rowan tree for his protective nature.
These plants ceased to be just plants and became the persons whose love they represented. We would refer to the plants by their names as in “Oh, look at Celine already blooming!”. Or when a friend or family visited home, they would walk straight to their tree and exclaim, “You have been taking good care of me, haven’t you?”.
Growing up, I learned to call the garden Papa’s Hall of Love after Hollywood’s Hall of Fame. The custom, though, was no vanity affair for Papa; it was an affair of the heart. When he was at home, if he was not occupied, he was out in the garden tending to them – watering, pruning, pulling weeds off of them. Papa used to say that gardening always reminded him not just tend to his nears and dears, but also how to tend to them. “Relationship is like fruits: essential for health, yet can turn toxic if not grown properly” was his motto.
This was a custom papa got into upon building himself and moving into the house we call home. The house, its compactness, its bean-shape, how it seemed to snuggle upon the vast semi-circle garden in front of it, the tranquility of the neighborhood, impressed upon the persons who had grown to know him as a spiritual abode that grew out of the spirit he matured into at a point in his life. Papa wore that spirit inside out and the out-thereness of the spirit, his affability, drew friends in as birds to pollen.
Aunt Mina, papa’s suave, polished, younger sister, referred to the house as a ‘seed coat’ that papa’s soul formed over itself when it grew into a seed of spirit.
“He was never this hallowed,” she teased him, in the amused presence of mommy, grandpa, grandma, and myself, “oh no he was not. Seedy was what he was before he has become the mustard seed of spirit every one sings laurels for”.
“Mina?” Grandma scowled at her playfully.
Papa laughed it off. “I am not proud of those aimless wandering days,” he chuckled.
“What holy accident transformed him so much is beyond me,” she added.
He said he grew tired, disenchanted with that life.
Aimless wandering days was as much papa ever said about that ‘seedy’ part of his past. One relic, however, of the aimless wandering days, it seems, made it into the garden, a weeping cheery tree, after a lady we knew only by name as Linda. Why only she of that past has a presence in the garden was a mystery papa preferred to be kept buried along with its root. She must have been special to him. Perhaps they still kept in touch. We never knew. The weepy cheery tree was the only tree in the whole garden that irked mommy. I suspected it was more than because of ‘the mess it dripped all over the place’.
Plopping into his soul was also what mommy says she felt the first time she set her feet in the house, when he invited her over for dinner eight months into the relationship they lulled into.
“I still feel we dwell in his soul,” she often sighed.
But we all knew that if home was papa’s soul, mommy sure impressed her mark all over it ever since two months after she set her feet in, he scooped her into his wings in marriage under its roof.
Papa was fond of saying, “Liv came with her baby grand piano into my house and music into my life”.
The baby grand piano had since become a cultural object in the family tradition. Especially, as soon as mommy walked in home from work around 4, she would slump before the piano and get into playing a note that papa and I understood as her “I am home” note. It reached us wherever in the house we happened to be. They were not any particular notes, but what came to her in the moment. Papa would say he learned to scent her mood and how her day had gone in the tunes that wafted in the house and he would know how best to approach her that day.
Mommy was a round baby’s face enlarged and a free spirit in tall, shapely feminine body. She had childlike enthusiasm about her that pored out of her soulful eyes, and arrested one in her attention. A perennial smile seemed to repose on her wide lips as though every breath she took in tickled her to mirth.
The mystic garden is more our living room than just a garden in whose scenery and serenity we liked to have our family hours and entertain family and friends.
Mommy remembers that the garden was sparse when she first visited the place. Like the hair on the front of my father’s head, she said. There were his mother’s oak tree, his father’s maple tree, aunt Mina’s crab apple, she remembered, and her olive tree was sprouting. A few other trees too. Like his childhood friend he referred to me as ‘Uncle’ Aman. And the troublesome weeping cherry tree.
The garden has since proliferated with plants of friendship and love.
I remember the first time this family tradition was imparted to me. I was perhaps seven then. It was a Summer afternoon. We were sprawled on the grass reclining against the olive tree in the garden. I perched on papa’s lap, my head resting on his broad chest. Mommy cuddled into papa’s arms beside us.
“That cute thing over there is you,” he said in the low, soft voice I have grown addicted to, pointing to the oriental lily tree in the middle of the garden to our right.
“To your right is your grandma, my mother, and this olive tree here to your left, in whose generous, breezy shade of love we roost is mommy,” he cooed, squeezing mommy in over my shoulders.
I looked at myself and I looked at mommy and I envied how large, verdant, succulent mommy looked.
“Papa,” I interrupted in my childish inquisitiveness, “why am I a Lily?”
“Why, love,” he said, studying my face with his keen eyes, “because you are ‘Amma’. Don’t you know what your name means? ‘Amma ’ means ‘godlike’, and lily means divinity”.
“Amma”, “Godlike” was, mommy told me, the lullaby he whispered into my ears since, upon my birth, she first put me in his arms. “That,” mommy would emphasize, “accounts for why you tail your world around with you”.
“And do you know why you are right in the heart of the garden,” papa continued, looking down into my face. I shook my head, keeping my inquisitive gaze upon his square face.
“Because you are most special of them all to me. And do you know why else you are special,” he asked. I shook my head biting my lips to hold back my delight.
“Because unlike anyone else, you entered my garden before you were even born,” he crooned. “Even mommy had to earn her place,” he added as he looked up at the amused face of mommy.
Mommy recounted me only recently, as a twenty seven year old woman and mother of a baby boy, the exceptional case of how I got my seed in the Hall of Love.
“If ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, the truly content wife would desire nothing more than to have him inside her belly, to carry his seed as his mother carried the seed he had grown out of,” mommy began.
“Babe, we are ready,” she beseeched papa, for he wanted them to be certain that they had prepared a womby environment to welcome an offspring into, for it to be born from a womb into another womb of spiritual growth.
A week later, papa was reclining on their bed in his evening pajamas when mommy re-emerged from the bath, wagging a pregnancy test kit, jumping for joy. “We are pregnant! We are pregnant!”.
Papa was stunned into silence as though the reality of the outcome of what he had consented to do dawned on him only then.
He wandered out into the darkness. Mommy reasoned this was how men took the realization they were going to be fathers for the first time and that he needed time for the realization to set in.
Then she heard the sound of a shovel from the darkness. Fearing he was taking this too far, she hurried out to find him planting a seed.
“You see,” mommy concluded the tale, “this tree is only a week older to the day you were conceived”.
This surfaced a tender memory. I must have been in grade three. I came running in from school to find papa on his knees, in his suits, digging up a hole in the garden. I walked up to him, wound my arms around him, and kissed him in greeting. I knelt down beside him.
“Who is it?” I said, watching him pull out a seed.
“This,” he said, holding up the seed between his thump and forefinger, “is a new friend; his name is Redwan”.
“Papa?” I called, remembering the question I had been meaning to ask him, as I watched his devout hands perform the ritual.
“Yes, Amma?” he muttered, his attention still on the task.
“Where is you?” I asked.
“Me?” he asked, turning to me, incredulous. The question seemed to have never occurred to him.
“Honey, I cannot be in my own hall of love,” he explained, “I can only hope to be in the halls of those who are in mine”.
“But Papa,” I interjected, “you know I don’t have a hall of love! Mommy does not – none of us do”.
He smiled understandingly, “That’s not true, honey. Every one has their hall of love; you have yours too, in here,” he said, pointing to my bosom, “in your heart”.
I have venerated papa. The one time I had ever shown irreverence was when once the rushiness of my adolescent blood in my veins got the better of my reason. I stayed up late drinking at house party at my friend’s. Early morning, my head thumping, I tried to sneak in, but papa was dozing off on the couch by the door. He must have kept up waiting for me. He awoke at the creak of the door.
Altercation ensued. I have only hazy recollection of what transpired then on account of the throb in my head, but of. the venom that escaped my mouth, and of the pain it registered on the face of love my memory is singularly clear.
“I am not your stupid little lily tree!” I shouted back at him.
I ran to my room and shut myself in.
At noon, mommy came knocking on my door and pleaded to be let in.
“Your father has been sitting by the garden all day, Amma. He refused to come in,” said mommy.
We both knew what that meant. When trouble brewed in his soul, he sought solace in the plants, in the spirits that resided in them of the persons who loved him and whom he loved. It was as though they wrapped invisible arms around him and consoled him.
There is no wound a soul full of love can not heal. Some wounds, in their healing, bring the wounded and the wounder closer. That was what transpired between us in the long, subdued conversation we had in the garden till twilight that I have come to refer to as Papa’s Sermon on the Hall of Love. From the corner of my eyes, I could see mommy looking on from the window from time to time.
It’s then that papa shared with me what I can only call his philosophy of life.
“In the beginning there is seed,” he remarked. “Everything, plant, human, condition, has its beginning in seed”.
“Condition?” I repeated.
“No condition ever sprouted on the earth,” papa continued his train of thought, “without ever being sowed as a thought in human mind. That includes our little squabble, Amma. That includes even the natural disasters. Conditions are but thoughts cultivated with corresponding feelings and emotions come to fruition. Thought is the seed, darling. Watch what thoughts you sow in your hall of love, for out of them grows your realities”.
“But Papa, what thoughts should I sow?” I posed.
Papa sank into silence in reflection for several minutes. He seemed to seek the help of the spirits in the air to verbalize what was implicit to him.
“Amma,” he sighed finally, “there are plenty of good thoughts to sow – but the ultimate thought is this: oneness”.
“Think upon oneness,” he explained, “be in perpetual contemplation of oneness with self, oneness with fellow beings, oneness with Nature – oneness with God. Ruminate upon it until it seeps into your gene and become your character and biology”.
He relapsed into silence. “Its fruit,” he resumed, “is attunement with infinite bliss, wellbeing, glory, prosperity”.
The lesson weighed heavily upon my adolescent mind in the pregnant silence that followed.
“But,” papa spoke, “there is an essential antecedent to sowing thought in one’s mind”.
“There is?” I mumbled, curious.
“Preparing the soil of the mind,” he went on, dreamy, distant, “cultivating it, refining its fertility. Lofty thoughts do not come to any fruition in an infertile soil”.
He came to another halt. He turned around and studied my absorbed face.
“Thoughts, like seed, need nutrients to grow,” he continued, “the nutrients thoughts need to grow is this: favorable attitude. Only those seeds that correspond to our predominant attitude manage to sprout into our reality”.
“Attitude?” I reflected, “How does one cultivate the right attitude?”
“With feelings,” he said, “joy, compassion, gratitude, hope, love are the humus to the soil of mind that refine its fertility”.
“That,” he added as an afterthought, “ is what the good book means by ‘turn and become like children’ when it says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
That has since also become my philosophy of life too.
At 73, papa died. I was by his side when he said he didn’t feel well and lied down. The way death took him on its ride was the way papa used to tease out my loose teeth: sharp, but fast pain and he was gone.
On his funeral, all the living families, friends foregathered in their person as they had always done in their spirit in the Hall of Love, now heavy, black trees over his tomb. In my tearful eyes I looked upon the face of the nature before me, searching for meaning, significance, a sign, any sign, such as a whisper, or a droplet of tears, or simply a nod of its head in acknowledgment of the soul who had lived in symphony with it, but it went its indifferent ways.
As I watched, over my mother convulsing into feeble weeping in my arms, papa’s body lowered into the excavated pit, and earth was spaded into the pit over it, the sense came over me that his body was now a seed, that we were all gathered there to commemorate the sowing of a seed in the eternal Garden of the Greatest Gardner, that the seed would germinate into the earth and sprout out into life on the other side of the Garden.
Gebriel Alazar Tesfatsion considers himself a disciple of his own existence, who attends to the lessons it offers, and seeks to find expression for them in language. He has a BA in English from Eritrea Institute of Technology. He is currently a graduate student in the University of Tsukuba, Japan.