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Growing up, I believed my mother's garden was magic

EMILY FLAKE/The Globe and Mail

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I grew up in a house situated between two worlds. Every night I would climb into my wooden bunk bed and whisper my prayers to the single star visible from my tiny window. Then I would crawl under the covers and wait.

Soon the sounds that signalled nightfall in our semi-detached, red-brick house filled the air. From the room through the wall came the melody of an acoustic guitar. From across the garden path and the alley separating our house from another one, came the familiar shriek of an angry Portuguese grandmother.

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I would toss for hours on end, listening to the clashing melody of twanging notes and foreign words.

I knew that my mother would call each of our neighbours requesting silence, and that when this failed she would tramp outside in her nightgown to bang on their doors and demand peace and quiet. If we were lucky, there would be a couple of hours of silence. Then the sun would make an appearance, the birds would awake, and the noise of the neighbourhood would rise to a deafening crescendo again.

In those days, before my mother became overworked and tired, and before my parents' divorce was final, we used to have a garden. Growing up, I truly believed that garden was magic.

My mother's garden was as wild in spirit as she was. In the centre grew wild roses surrounded by crystals of rose quartz. The agrarian flowers and the jagged stones were her most prized possessions. She planted bulbs every year and taught my brother and I how to do it. There were also sunflowers, which were planted on my request. I loved the cyclopean plants that towered above my head like giants in my fairy tales.

Spring soon became my favourite season; the time when the tulips bloomed, bulbs were brought out of the basement and planted and the raspberries were ripe for picking. The Portuguese boys from next door would hop over the fence that separated our two backyards to help pick the raspberries before the birds could swoop in and steal them. I still prefer raspberries that way: warm and soft from the spring sun, right off the vine.

The boys would play in our garden for hours on end. We'd run through clouds of floral scent until our noses were overwhelmed. We'd roll around on the lush, soft grass until our clothes were covered in stains.

But our happiness, like most joys in the world, was shortlived.

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When we heard their grandmother's sharp voice pierce the air, as it always did without fail, the boys would jump right over the fence and into oblivion. I would often sit on the highest point of on my play structure and try to peer over the wall, but I was always too little to see into that other world, and thus it remained a secret to me.

I didn't know what those boys endured at home, but of one thing I was sure: My mother's garden was a refuge, a place where my parents hugged one another instead of fighting. A place where children could be children.

On the other half of our semi was the Johnstons' backyard. I was able to see into their world as their fence was low and had large gaps. Their garden was much different from my mother's. The grass was neatly trimmed; it hadn't been allowed to grow tall and wild and free. The children who lived there wore neat clothes that would never sport even the smallest grass stain or suggestion of any frolicking whatsoever. There were no roses or raspberry bushes, only petunias and mums. Though I was often invited by the girl who lived next door, I had decided early on that that garden was not a place I wanted to venture.

I used to wonder what the other children thought of my family when they came to play in our garden. Did they notice that my father was hardly present, or that my mother spent most of her time alone among the tall plants she had caused to blossom?

Though I was fascinated by the worlds in which the other two children lived, I often wished I could escape my own. Our garden became that escape for me, the Narnia at the back of my wardrobe.

When the place I was supposed to call home became filled with sounds that were even less pleasant than the off-key strumming of guitar strings and angry shrieks in Portuguese, I headed into the garden to find peace.

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During the days of my young life in which nothing seemed to make sense, it became a place filled with nothing but happy memories for me.

When my father left, I still had the first sunflower I had planted with him.

When my mother chastised me, I had the chives that she often cooked with to munch on.

When my brother was born and the adult world seemed to deny my existence, I had the neighbourhood children for company.

And at night, when the noise of the neighbourhood kept me up, I wished that our humble house was filled with noise instead of the deadening silence that brought the awareness to all of us that one member of our family was missing.

Jasmine Shenandoah lives in Toronto.

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