Tara Austen Weaver has always yearned for a closer-knit family. Her mother was raised by a very harsh stepmother (these days I would hope CPS would have been called in), and lacked the experience herself of a close family life. Although the author’s mother worked very hard to raise her two children, Tara does not gloss over the sacrifices and hardships of her childhood.
Growing up in a single-working-mom family, Tara had few school friends because she could never bring friends home, (the few attempts were abysmal failures). “I wanted friends to be able to open the fridge and get a snack without fear of what they might find there, collapse on a sofa, put their feet up on a coffee table… There were no coffee tables in our house. What little furniture we had was arranged around the edges of a large Chinese carpet… In the place where there should have been comfort, there was only emptiness.”
However, Tara’s memories of the garden she grew up in and the happy times spent there encouraged her to have hope that dreams can still come true. When her mother buys a house in Seattle with a large, neglected garden and orchard, the author’s dreams are about to become reality… or so she thinks.
“My obsession with dining tables was not new. My first big purchase in Seattle, before I ever thought I would live there, had been a dining table with long benches. It seemed like a symbol of the life I was yearning for – one that was slower, where we were all less busy and I could gather friends and family around for meals that lingered. The truth is I barely had any friends in Seattle at the time, and my family was held together by the most tenuous threads, but if I had the table, maybe they would come.”
The first half of “Orchard House” went a little slowly for me. I do love gardens and I love to work in my garden, but the repeated observations of various plants, soils, and the changing seasons began to get a little tedious. But then suddenly the book seems to take off (I do wonder if this was written initially as a series of essays), and there are anecdotes and lessons that are not to be missed.
For instance, when the author bakes a raspberry pie made from her garden berry bushes, realizes she can’t possibly eat it all herself, and invites a couple friends over… but, they will see her mess! They might notice the weeds, the piled up garden tools, the mounds of compost and broken flowerpots…
“Perhaps the secret was finding comfort in the way things were: a process of accepting rather than hiding.
The irony was that I liked it when other people let me see them as they truly were: less-than-perfect houses, disordered garages, overdue library books. The imperfections in my friends’ lives didn’t make me like them any less – they made me like them more. I felt more comfortable with the flaws in my own life, more intimately connected to them; it made me feel like family.
I knew this intellectually, but it was harder to apply. I might be able to appreciate rustic charm in a pie, to enjoy the comfortable clutter of a friend’s house, but I held myself to a higher standard – one I never managed to achieve. My friends didn’t have to be perfect. I just couldn’t give myself that same compassion.”
There are chapters on mulching (first time I’ve ever heard of ‘sheet mulching’), a pruning disaster and the time it took to recover from it, and a Thanksgiving dinner made solely from garden produce. There are gardening secrets and the long dark and dreary winters to get through, brightened by planning the next year’s garden. And there are happy days when the author’s nieces romp through their grandmother’s property, bringing out a playful side in her mother that she had never seen before.
I enjoyed this book and this is certainly not going to be a one-time read.