As the garden grew, she started to fade. We got married on the beach in Maine, in April. At the time that had seemed like a good idea. Her parents had visited me in Norway in April the year before and it had been hot and sunny. And Maine is further south than Norway. And she is from New England, she would know what the weather was like. Years later on our anniversary, standing on that beach, in the driving snow-laden wind and feeling cold to the very core, I wondered what we had been thinking. We had been so lucky.
This year as the sharp shards of ice melted, and as the floods flowed through the Flume, and down waterfalls, we prepared a garden. We planted beans in our garden, at the back, up against a fence they could grow through. At the front of the plot, we planted cucumber plants, with another small fence for them to grow through. And in the middle, tomato plants, radishes, cabbages, cauliflowers, and many others. Tomayto – such an American thing to say. When you aren’t around Americans all the time, you can forget it’s not just something Americans say to sound silly.
I’m not Norwegian. I am, genetically, but I am English in every meaningful cultural sense. There are a few genetically English people, but they are extremely rare. But cultural Englishness is everywhere. We visited England once and heard a very regional accent – the kind of accent that, in unguarded moments, tells you something about the IQ of the speaker, even though it cannot possibly have that power. Americans have southern drawl; England has the Midlands. The accent, and what it was saying was English, and when we saw them they were wearing a hijab, but they were still English. I felt kind of proud of my culture when I saw that, but then had to remind myself about the bombing of Dresden, the partition of India, the Atlantic Slave Trade, and myriad famines and massacres. Not my doing, of course, but certainly products of my culture. Pride feels wrong with that context.
Us Englishmen say a lot of things that we might say to sound silly. For every tomayto, there is a Zebra not zeebra, aeroplane not airplane, bonnet not hood, chuffed not ‘really quite pleased with my achievement in a non-gloating manner’. And cheeky, a word that really doesn’t have a translation.
As I understand it, tomaytoes grow really well in the New England climate. In Norway and England they need to be behind glass to get enough warmth, but here they can thrive all exposed and in the open. The beans were faintly ridiculous: We buried the chunky seed about its own height below the soil. In a few days, the seed had managed to get back to the surface and it had a small sprout. Within a few hours the sprout was inches long, and the very next morning the plant was five American inches tall and had a leaf. The seed bean appeared to have been pushed out of the soil by the shoot and was split about halfway up the plant.
Fee Fi, Foe, Fum, I smell the blood of a Norwegian? It makes so much more sense when you see a bean grow day by day, hour by hour.
As the garden grew, she started to fade. She had been well on that May day as the plants had been getting started. They had their whole lives ahead of them. She was beginning to wonder if she had many more days at all. Her beautiful, dark skin had started to become wan and weak. Her smile, usually so strong and bright, had become tinged with sadness and insincerity. Her hair, so often colored purple, red, orange, or green, was allowed to grow back naturally, but somehow with less vitality.
Bulbous green tomatoes appeared on the stems of some of the plants and even as they grew, she began to shrink. The life in her cheeks started to wash away like loose soil in a heavy storm. The yellow flowers on the cucumber plants, reflecting back the brightest bits of sunlight, contrasted with the yellow tinge to her eyes, previously so bright and full of life. We were married in 1975 – I cannot be too upset, right? People lose people, and they can expect to as they age. But she doesn’t need to. She was healthy on our anniversary; she was healthy when we planted this garden. And now she may not eat our potatoes. Potatoes… There’s evidence that the English say tomato wrong. Because English is a very logical language with no rules broken. I’m having linguistic debates with myself now because she cannot. I wish she could.