The Apprenticeship That Changed My Life

How AdaMae got me out of a bus and into a garden, and into a whole new way of thinking about work

A Little Chaos

Planting Depth

AdaMae turned 77 the summer I worked in her Iowa garden. She remembered gardening on V-E day with her mother on their South Dakotan homestead because she got in trouble for wiping fresh-pulled soil-y carrots on her clothes.

She grew up saying, “gentlemen cow,” because “bull” was too close to a swearword and her mother “wouldn’t say shit if her mouth was full of it.” She remembered when ballpoint pens premiered as a new invention and weekly tapped one on a clipboard for her Bloom Survey. When she broke her foot, she crawled back into her garden despite her doctor saying that he tries “to get so many people up off their butts but can’t get you down on yours.”

She didn’t own a TV, but her computer constantly glowed in her second-story office where she sporadically worked on her biologics consulting business before teetering on the no-slip carpeted stairs to her kitchen and then out her sliding door and through her porch, down her deck, and into her east lot filled with her garden.

I told my wife Lauren all about AdaMae. In autumn, I finally brought her to meet the woman, almost fifty years older than me, who could have been my grandmother, who had gardened until she died. I came to love AdaMae like a surrogate.

Together, Lauren and I biked from our duplex on the north side of Ames and southward on Clark Avenue, westward on 20th Street, continued down Northwestern, crossed the railroad tracks at 9th Street, continued along Brookridge, turned right on 4th Street, and then took Russell just before it switched from North to South at Lincoln Way. Since spring, I knew all the local streets and I tried to avoid the ones that would take us by the routes I used to drive a city bus.

I had taken the summer off because there weren’t enough hours for everyone at the public transit system, but then I hadn’t returned that fall. All along my route to AdaMae’s I led Lauren to skirt the GREEN route. I ducked my head so any passing drivers wouldn’t recognize me and holler out their window that they missed me.

Seed Spacing

AdaMae became a Master Gardener in 1995. For twenty years, she cultivated her house’s double-plot into a landscape. When I worked with her she did what I called, “the walk and talk.” She puttered around with her favorite pair of straight-blade, springy hand-clippers deadheading while spouting off the scientific names of her plants as if listing her entire Welsh genealogy. I thought I could barely keep up with the common names, but after Lauren and I parked our bikes in the driveway and locked them together, I began to point out the plants as we walked from AdaMae’s front to back yards.

In front of the house’s steps, next to a silver maple, intricate green stems of diamond frost bulked out of their pots with white nail-clippings of petals scattered inside the bushy plant. Moss wedged between the cobblestone path paralleling a curving stream that ended in a bubbling fountain. “There’s a naked lady!” I said and pointed for Lauren to look at the vulva-pink blossom, spread on the end of a stem, by the gate to the back yard.

Clematis wrapped around the lean-to of wooden stakes that looked like a mini-pyramid. At first, I thought that that climber with thicker vines was another variety of morning glory, but the star-shaped blossoms stayed open, their colorful petals shining all day. Little blue balloon blossoms filled with something other than hot air as they suspended along stems of other plant varieties all older than 1940. Some things in the garden remained mysteries to me. AdaMae said she picked that year because it was easy to remember, but I wondered if she remembered something from when she turned two. The heirloom garden’s flowers hold her silent.

Growing Height

At the top of the deck that I had painted, AdaMae greeted us wearing her gardening uniform: a clip holding her still-brown hair wrapped in a chignon, a frayed visor around the crown of her head, a neon mesh short sleeve shirt with her arms as tan as tree bark, flowing polyester black pants somehow not too hot, and chunky thick-soled shoes for her thin feet. She welcomed us into the porch that I had stained. I held open the screen door for Lauren. The hinge held securely after replacing it and Lauren didn’t even notice the worn wood that I had filled in and shellacked. We sat in the willow furniture that I had oiled.

While AdaMae and Lauren chatted over iced tea, I considered all the other handyman projects I had done. I stained the front gate — its two-inch square, four-sided slats made the job twice as long. I stained the arbor seat — a tucked in the corner gazebo under a crabapple tree looking out at the fountain. I stained the Adirondack love-seat set in front of the water lilies.

But I didn’t just do staining and painting projects. I never said I couldn’t do anything, so I figured out how to fix everything that came to AdaMae’s mind. I cleaned out the sprouted maple seedlings under the eaves’ gutter-guards. I Gorilla-glued the split paneling of graying barn-wood birdhouses with rusty license plated roofs. I sawed 1x2s into new stakes to attach to the bottom of the butter-yellow butterfly house. I installed lever handles on the house’s front and rear doors so AdaMae could enter and exit without aggravating her arthritis by attempting to grasp at knobs.

Days to Germinate

I showed Lauren where I always ate my lunch, on the green swing bench in the southern corner of AdaMae’s back yard. Nesting pockets hung on the alley’s fence for migrating birds to rest. An old hand pump continually flowed with an electric motor to power running water as a mask for the noise of Lincoln Way, one block away. Still, I could hear the air brakes dry squelch of RED route making its stops. If AdaMae thought that “the best sound of the year is the day when the pumps are put in each spring,” then my favorite sound was a bus pulling away without me at the wheel.

My favorite sound was a bus pulling away without me at the wheel.

I wanted to explain to Lauren how the garden was meditative. I came to the same place day after day and worked the same plot weeding, watering, and planting. The flora and fauna got used to me, and I could sense them. I knew their names and their habits like the rhythm of the landscape.

I recalled one morning when I arrived just after dew break as the sun rose. By the corner of the arbor seat, wet beads, seemingly floating in the air, lit up. I walked on the steaming cobblestones until a spider web, which was the size of a bus rim, appeared. It stitched through the dew.

In the afternoon when I watered the impatiens, a hummingbird flitted near me between dips into a red glass vase filled with sucrose that hung on the edge of the porch. The bird darted so close to me that I took a step back. The hose lofted and arced a stream and the hummingbird skimmed through the water to the top of the locust tree. The leaves swayed like a swarm.

In the evenings, dozens of robins settled on the stump at the top of the backyard’s water feature. They pecked between the mulch for worms and washed their wings in the stream. If I didn’t take my time weeding around them, they would burst into the sky — a confetti of rust.

Thinning

AdaMae said, “One way to make time slow down is to have a job you hate.” I hadn’t realized how fast time could move until it had been two weeks away from the transit system’s fall schedule beginning. After toiling outside with soil under my nails, I couldn’t imagine sitting all day and driving around the city again as the days shortened through the next season. I e-mailed one of the transit trainers who had taught me to ride the wheel and I said, while it had been an adventure, I was done.

I just needed to return my uniform. I stuffed my white button ups, red polos, pants, shorts, belt, fob, parking pass, and name tag into a paper sack. I felt like I was wrapping up an identity of fear, anger, frustration, and hatred — everything I felt when I was riding the wheel.

At base I parked in a visitor’s spot. Inside, past the front desk, Wanda swiveled in her dispatch chair, taking up the space separating me from the schedule screens. I could see the flickering routes and shifts needing to be picked up. There weren’t any drivers. My internal clock, still set to buses’ schedule, had identified a time when there wouldn’t be any drivers to whom I would have to explain why I was leaving.

“You left on good terms,” Wanda said. I said that was good, so I wouldn’t feel guilty for leaving, and set my bag of employee gear on the counter. Underneath, I knew from bringing them back to base that there were tubs full of lost and found items. There were unclaimed water bottles, TI-80 series calculators, single mittens, and lanyards.

“You can always come back,” Wanda said. “We’re always here.”

I said, “I know,” because the circulators roll around the university each semester, the fixed routes sequenced out of the Mall, but also I knew I wouldn’t return to riding the wheel.

Light

After we finished our iced teas, I took Lauren to the garden shed and green house. The potted plants would be shut up with the first frost until the spring thaw. As I had sharpened tools and organized the trellis I always kept in mind a rectangular sign that hung from the rafters. I pointed to it. A snowman filled in a corner while the two lines read: Garden season over. / Reason: It’s freezing!

AdaMae had gotten me out of a bus and into a garden. I had traded a wheel for a trowel, but I didn’t know what was next when winter came. I wasn’t going to look for a job so much as seek a joy.

Before we left, I showed Lauren the viney love-in-a-puff climbing up the shed’s threshold. The once-green, now-browned spheres clung like miniature paper-lanterns. I plucked one of these and crumbled it in my hand. I blew into my palm, scattering the featherweight matter off my skin, to reveal jawstopper-sized black seeds stamped with a white shaped heart.

Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. After graduating, he worked a variety of odd-jobs including crossing guard, gardener, carpenter’s assistant, bus driver, and dishwasher. His nonfiction has also been published on the Awl, the Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, the Rumpus, and many other magazines beginning with the definite article “the.” He hosts the author interview show Book Central on the community radio station KHOI — “Heart of Iowa.” Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com