Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden

by Alexandra Risen

In this moving memoir, a woman digs into a garden and into the past and finds secrets, beauty, and acceptance.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544633360
  • ISBN-10: 0544633369
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 07/05/2016
  • Carton Quantity: 12
About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    In this moving memoir, a woman digs into a garden and into the past and finds secrets, beauty, and acceptance. 

     

    Alex’s father dies just as she and her husband buy a nondescript house set atop an acre of wilderness that extends into a natural gorge in the middle of the city. Choked with weeds and crumbling antique structures, the abandoned garden turned wild jungle stirs cherished memories of Alex’s childhood: when her home life became unbearable, she would escape to the forest. In her new home, Alex can feel the power of the majestic trees that nurtured her in her youth. 

     

    She begins to beat back the bushes to unveil the garden’s mysteries. At the same time, her mother has a stroke and develops dementia and Alex discovers an envelope of yellowed documents while sorting through her father’s junk pile. The papers hold clues to her Ukrainian-born parents’ mysterious past. She reluctantly musters the courage to uncover their secrets, while discovering the plants hidden in the garden — from primroses and maple syrup–producing sugar maples to her mother's favorite, lily of the valley. As every passionate gardener knows, to spend time with the soil is the opposite of escapism — it is to embrace our own circle of life and hold it close. 

     

 

Additional Assets

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    Chapter 1: Sour Cherries 

      

    The patterned linoleum of Father’s tiny bathroom is curled back under the cabinet, the glue dried up long ago. Everything dries up: glue, skin, love. The cabinet’s bottom is sticky and stained with age, crowded with half-empty bottles of aftershave, shampoo, and other toiletries. Mom and Sonia didn’t have the courage to clean out the bathroom, so I volunteered. I’ve decided to stay for a few weeks, now that the funeral is over, to help Mom with whatever needs doing. I’m okay with the worst tasks, perhaps to relieve my guilt for not living nearby and for letting Sonia, the dutiful daughter, carry the weight. 

     

    All garbage, I decide. I pour as many liquids down the avocado-green sink as I can; they swirl around the rusty drain stopper and soon I am floating in a stink of Resdan hair tonic and Listerine. 

     

    The sharp fumes burn my nostrils. I hold my breath as I wash away a life; it all comes down to some pill bottles, checkered work shirts in the closet, and a few boxes. My arms are heavy as I work, and my hands shaky from lack of sleep. Strange dreams and chest pains now punctuate my ongoing insomnia. Stress, Sonia says. I wonder what a heart attack feels like, and whether Father shouted as he tumbled off that ladder. My dreams are a slide show of the past few days, images I hope to soon erase: Max, heavy with sleep on the pew, thankfully unaware of the terrifying open-casket, incense-filled Mass that no toddler should witness; the line of tombstones near Father’s, because our parents and their friends, a group of displaced immigrants, prepurchased a row of plots together when they all turned fifty; Mom’s tombstone, waiting, her name, and below it 1924–, as they lower Father’s oak coffin into the adjacent plot. 

     

    I was transfixed by the blank space, waiting for its inevitable date, on the dusty tombstone. My parents did us a favor by preplanning, but more importantly, they wanted to be together at the end. A symbolic gesture that recognized that they understood each other in ways their children never would. They were right. 

     

    We didn’t talk about anything much after the funeral except for the one demand Mom made from the hearse’s back seat. 

     

    “If I’m sick, no machines, no feeding tubes. That’s an order. If I can’t live on my own, you girls must let me go.” 

     

    “What if you can still hear us?” I asked. I never did tell her that Father heard me from the depths of his coma. Too much had been said, and not said, and then it didn’t matter. 

     

    “If I can’t live without machines, it’s not real life,” Mom answered. 

     

    I promised, ignoring the sickening dread in my stomach. Sonia escaped into the hazy view through the dust-covered window. I understand Mom’s point ?— ?she, Sonia, and I watched the doctors remove Father’s machines when his organs gave out. Still, my heart’s conflicted, and my head’s too heavy to think about what I would want if it were me. 

     

    Since the funeral, Mom has been in the garden. August is a busy time. She prepares vegetables and fruit for winter during the day, and spends the evenings with Max in front of the television. Mom doesn’t understand SpongeBob SquarePants, and Max doesn’t understand The Price is Right, but The Nature of Things seems to bridge their seventy-year divide. 

     

    I’ve been cleaning out house cupboards, and I’m surprised by the things I’ve long forgotten and the sentimental memories they arouse. My first rock collection fascinates Max, especially the smelly yellow sulfur chunks that I picked up from the rocky railroad beds of the tracks that ran directly behind our first house. I twirl a sharp granite rock between my fingers, and I’m suddenly playing on the tracks, creosote in my nostrils, as the trumpet of an oncoming train’s horn shoos me away from my rock search. I was never afraid. 

     

    I snap back into the present. Mom’s canned goods from twenty years ago, in neat dust-covered rows, however, terrify me. I ruthlessly trash them ?— ?someone has to save her from botulism. 

     

    “What about the garage?” I walk past Mom to the old-fashioned metal garbage cans at the driveway’s end. 

     

    “Not now.” She shakes the dirt from an onion. “Your sister and I can sort through it during the winter. I’ll have to sell the car, though.” 

     

    My chest tightens. I’ve always hated that car. 

     

    “Okay, I’ll keep to the closets for now,” I say. She doesn’t hear me because she’s already moved to the shrubs along the south-facing stucco wall: red currants, gooseberries, and chokecherries. Jellies to be made. 

     

    Sonia arrives when I’m sorting through the basement closet. 

     

    “Look at all this camera stuff. Do you want it?” I ask. 

     

    “My basement’s full. Why don’t you take it?” 

     

    “No, I’m flying.” Father had amassed a sophisticated camera and lens collection, all in their original boxes. “Did he ever use this stuff? It looks brand new.” 

     

    “Perhaps Max will want it someday? He’s already showing his technical side,” she says. 

     

    She’s right. Max is crouched on the floor, his expression intense as he joins plastic LEGO action figure pieces. He’s working on For Ages 8+, beyond his years, Sonia observes proudly. 

     

    We find a shoebox filled with old crinkled-edged photos. 

     

    “These are mostly their friends at parties in the basement,” I tell her, flipping through the box. “Want them?” Father didn’t have to talk to people if he was behind the camera. 

     

    “No thanks,” Sonia answers. “You?” 

     

    What’s the point? They’re photos of local Ukrainian friends we know as little about as we do our parents. None of them are family, or maybe they are, because we don’t even know if we have aunts and uncles somewhere in the Ukraine. It’s not that we don’t care; we’ve become used to not knowing what we’re missing. When our curiosity occasionally surfaced, we were too afraid to break the silence, and then it slowly, simply ceased to matter. 

     

    “Nope. Although Cam likes to save stuff like this for Max. I’ll take it for him.” 

     

    We fill Sonia’s car with “things Max might want in the future.” She doesn’t have her own children, and I’m moved by her thoughtfulness. She’s also a pack rat. 

     

    “Where’s Mom?” she asks. 

     

    “Garden.” 

     

    “Have you discussed the wedding yet? How’s Megan?” 

     

    “Megan still thinks we should cancel. It’s up to Mom.” I can’t believe I’m going to indirectly prevent my best friend’s wedding. 

     

    We walk up the stairs to the kitchen. Mom, in her dirt-covered T-shirt, is stirring instant coffee. Her fingernails are filthy, but she doesn’t seem to notice or care. A bowl of lime-green berries, hairy and translucent with thin white stripes, sits on the table. 

     

  • Reviews
    "As she restores the property and heals her long-troubled soul, Risen paints a vivid and exquisite portrait of nature and its profound significance."— Publishers Weekly 

     

    "Risen’s book is as much a celebration of nature and family as it is feast for the heart and soul. A generous, poignant memoir." — Kirkus Reviews 

     

    "Readers who appreciate memoirs and prosaic reflections on gardening will relish this title." — Library Journal  

     

    "A remarkable book." — Booklist, starred review

    "a poignant reflection on love, acceptance and the connection between nature and human beings...Risen’s memoir is an appealing and satisfying journey. The renewed and reshaped garden is a metaphor for the growth and insight we each can experience in our personal lives. It is a story that leads the reader to reflect on acceptance, reconciliation and love within his or her own family. It is an especially engaging metaphor for gardeners." - The Missourian 

     

    "In this rich and rewarding memoir, Alexandra Risen reminds us that a garden is a place of transformation and discovery. As she brings an abandoned and overgrown plot of land to life, she uncovers not just the secrets of her garden, but of her own past. She finds truth and beauty in both foliage and family, and we're fortunate to be invited along for the journey." — Amy Stewart, author of Girl Waits with Gun, The Drunken Botanist, and Wicked Plants 

     

    "Unearthed is a powerful read. Alexandra Risen’s stirring narrative offers a deeply personal testament to the healing powers of nature. As the secrets of her family’s troubled past are revealed, the shape-shifting garden becomes a metaphor for life, a source of recovery, growth, and insight. In Risen’s own words, 'The garden is a journey, and, like life, needs rest stops along the way, different vantage points to help our doubts morph into wisdom.' ” 

    — Scott D. Sampson, author of How to Raise a Wild Child 

     

    “What does a hidden, neglected garden have to teach us about life in this crazy world? Plenty, it turns out. From the first pages, I was under Alexandra’s Risen’s spell. At a time when so much of life is spent in virtual worlds, Unearthed is a reminder that information is nice but wisdom is better, and it’s all around us waiting to be discovered.” 

    — William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry