There’s a photo of Jay in a garden – not ours, but the one he had with his first family. A hint of autumn is in the air, a rusting around the edges of the photo, though it could just be that the colors have changed over time.
Jay must be about 35, and he’s on all fours, in jeans and a white sweater, his head turned toward the camera, with a big grin on his handsome face. This is because his two daughters, then maybe five and three, are clambering over him. The elder, Amanda, who will turn out to be much like him in her drive for success and happiness, has already made it onto his back, where she sits astride him, triumphant. Heather, younger, a bit more cautious, is making a spirited attempt to stay balanced on her dad’s shoulders, but her expression indicates that she’s dubious about this. They are all happy, father, daughters, and, I expect, the wife who’s holding the camera.
Jay Wilson was always ready to play in the garden. But as the years passed, it became clear that for him, tending a vegetable garden was the same as playing. It was an unlikely pastime for someone whose working life had him in charge of a company, trying to make it profitable, keep his employees motivated, and have fun doing it.
I often wondered why a man who worked so hard to control his weekday life liked to spend so much time on the hopeless quest that is gardening. Nature, it seemed to me, would insist on attempting to thwart him at every turn. Neat rows of carrot tops would be smothered by enthusiastic weeds, heavy rains would beat delicate pea seedlings into submission, or a baking sun would smugly dry out newly set tomato plants. Then there was the wildlife, magnetically attracted to Jay’s vegetables. Slugs, woodchucks, deer, – they all seemed to feel that Jay was growing this stuff just for them. Jay fought back. Pesticides, anti-fungal sprays, slug pellets, a chicken wire fence and a hose with a timer which he never quite mastered – all were strategically and tactically deployed to vanquish his enemies, because Jay loved a challenge, even a battle.
He would come in from the garden drenched in sweat, streaks of earth on his face, where he’d swiped perspiration or a mosquito away. There’d be mud under his fingernails and on his knees. I daresay he looked very similar as a boy, coming in after a morning spent climbing trees or playing in mud puddles.
I’d hand him a glass of water. He’d raise a celebratory fist in the air.
“I’ve done battle with (fill in the blank),” he would say. “And I have prevailed.”
Jay’s gardening uniform consisted of a golf shirt and an old pair of shorts, of which he had an extraordinary collection – madras, pink, green, orange, some with tiny golfers or whales on them. At least he left his earth-filled loafers at the door, but, of course, his feet were covered in dirt, too, which would somehow leave a trail up the stairs as he went to have a shower.
Nothing could deter him from his garden. Once, I had invited a certain English aristocrat, the 7th Earl of Bradford, to Sunday lunch. He wasn’t a friend but a business connection of mine. He rented out his stately home, and, through my company, I helped him find people who wanted to rent it.
At 11.30, exasperated, I went out to look for Jay. There he was, up to his eyes, planting the last few seedlings of the day.
“He’ll be here soon,” I wailed.
“Not to worry,” said Jay blithely. “After five minutes with him, I’ll be calling him Jim.”
“Fine,” I said. “His name’s Richard. And he’ll be calling you Wilson.””
Jay looked blank.
“He’ll think you’re the gardener,” I explained.
The lord was early. As he came up the drive in his red sports car and slid to a stop, spraying gravel, Jay was walking back to the garage, trundling his wheelbarrow. The lord gave him a friendly look.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “It’s my gardener. And I have to sleep with him to get him to do anything around here.”
I think the lord got it, because he laughed as Jay strode over to say hello.
In each house we lived in, Jay had a vegetable garden. It was my job to organize the flowers and lawn, trees and shrubs, and anything that the casual visitor might be expected to look at.
But Jay came from a generation where men were expected to be providers. And provide he did. Sometime in late July or early August, the tomatoes and zucchini would begin to ripen. In the early days of our marriage, I pictured myself in a filmy white dress and a wide-brimmed hat, a ladylike basket over my arm, strolling through the garden and stooping to pick a lettuce, a tomato or two, or maybe some fresh peas for lunch.
It wasn’t like that, exactly. I would come down to the kitchen in the morning, to make myself the first cup of tea of the day, and would pass Jay coming up the stairs, looking a little guilty.
“Just going to the shower before I get going,” he’d say. My heart would sink. I knew what this meant.
In the kitchen every surface was covered with a plague of tomatoes. Cherry, plum, and beefsteak, as far as the eye could see. And it was a decent-sized kitchen.
Jay had been up before me and picked everything he could find. With a sigh – and occasionally I could manage a smile, too – I’d fish out some brown paper bags and start carefully packing the tomatoes into them. Jay’s employees would take them and thank him, even if some of them were squashed and they only cost $1 a pound at the store.
Jay was happy. He had provided.