It's Easter. In Ireland, that means a time of renewal. In my father's time in County Donegal, it also meant planting the seeds that would flourish by late summer.
He was the best gardener I've ever known. Everything he touched flourished. Flowers, vegetables, trees, hedgerows, it was a rare gift.
Not only did he grow these things well, he turned the places where he grew them into beautifully tended gardens so that it wasn't just a crop but also a view to admire, with all his work and concentration speaking for itself.
He was a bit of the past moving through the present I think now, a quiet throwback to an earlier time. I can't think of anyone else in my town who was investing so much of themselves in their garden work the way he did in the 1980s. I do remember seeing some terrific local gardens back then, but I don't remember one that thrived quite the way his did.
My adult self knows now that he invested much more of himself in that effort than he may have within his own home. I think he was somehow more present to himself in that garden, more in control of what Heaney called the music of what happens. Here were a few blessed acres where what he put in he would later get out. I can understand the attraction of that contract to a man of his era and outlook.
I also think of a particular time he was working in. There were back-to-back recessions, mass emigration, political instability, the endless war in the North, the threat of global nuclear war, and AIDS. This was the background ambiance of the times and there were some concerns closer to home too.
He had two other sons who had their own problems. One was popular and almost never home, the other was wounded and watchful, and he knew that the world could switch those roles about without notice, so he never let his guard drop, but he gave us our space.
I think that it was anxiety that had first led him out into nature. I'm actually certain that it was. Having lost his wife early he had to be father and mother, a task that he found himself particularly unsuited for.
To center himself and remember his own origins he would work with his hands to grown things and calm down. What he never expected was that this was a gift he had been given, a thing that seemed to stand in sharp contrast to who he thought he was and what he was capable of.
One moment in particular I recall. One Easter Sunday I came back from mass, visibly relieved to have fulfilled my obligation and pleased that the one friend I had made was coming down to visit. I stopped to watch him busy among all the rows he'd planted that morning.
As I stood talking to him a chaffinch landed on my shoulder, momentarily electrifying us both. I didn't move. I let it rest. For a moment it took its bearings, getting a good look at us both before darting off again, revealing a flash of white wings under brown tail feathers.
He met my gaze still surprised by what we'd witnessed. “You're going to be all right,” he said to me quietly. Then he turned back to his garden.