In the gathering dusk of an afternoon that still lingers, I followed my father into the woods. He had not prospered in his first attempt to start a nursery business, the crimson-budded azalea liners withering only days after he…
I grew up in the nursery business. We sold azaleas, evergreens, and flowering trees to other nurseries and did a lot of residential landscaping after the business got established. In the beginning, though, it was all risk and very little reward. For years our dad struggled just to break even. My brothers and I worked long hours with him and were well aware of the tension between the hope that our little business would succeed and the fear that our dad was risking too much of the family’s future.
Getting the right soil mix, both for potting and planting in the ground, is something that nursery men and women adjust, reconfigure, and argue about nearly every year because there is no perfect recipe. I wanted to put into words the mix of hope and worry that comes with every potting season. I wanted to show how the resolution of that tension for my father involved something elemental, something from a folkloric past that I couldn’t access. It’s a tension that’s never fully resolved. That’s why I ended the sketch with the image of my brother reminding me of how much he looked like our dad.
The essay says overtly all that it wants to say about language—how for example “earth” seemed accessible to us only as something biblical and mythic. Or how the confluence of “nursery” and “nursing home” seemed suddenly so appropriate. The same with referring to the soil as a text that can be read: nursery people say such all of the time. The single liberty I took with the facts had to do with the handling of time. The essay suggests that the visit described in the last two paragraphs occurred “recently.” It didn’t. I wrote the first draft of this piece when our dad died, several years ago. I didn’t finish the essay at that time because I realized I was now just a visitor in the nursery and no longer one of the guys in the potting shed.
RANDY NELSON is a multiple-award-winning writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. His first collection, The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men, won the Flannery O’Connor Award, and his short stories have also been recognized in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and Best American Short Stories. His latest book is a mystery novel set in the 1930s called A Duplicate Daughter. He is the Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College.