‘For though we may be the earth’s gardeners, we are also its weeds’.
– Jack Harland
George was a quiet bloke. He didn’t talk much, but would always greet you with a smile. After living in our district for many years, no one could really say they knew him very well. But he was a familiar face at the local gardening club meetings.
Before his retirement George had worked as a gardener for one of the old council parks departments. I remember he walked with a slight limp from a war wound received in 1944.
George was well into his eighties when he saw a notice at our local church asking for volunteers to care for the gardens around the vicarage. He signed up.
One day George was just about finishing some weeding in the vicarage garden, when he was approached by three youths. Ignoring their attempts to intimidate him, he simply smiled and offered them a drink from his flask of tea. They grabbed his arms, threw him to the ground, and stole his retirement watch and his wallet and then ran away. The vicar had witnessed the attack from his window, but could not get there fast enough to stop it. He helped George to his feet. George refused to allow the vicar to report the incident and bent down to pick up his hoe. Greatly concerned, the vicar asked “George what are you doing?” “I’m all right and I’ve got my weeding to finish” said George. Satisfying himself that George really was all right, the vicar could only marvel. George was a man from a different time and place.
A few weeks later the three youths returned. Just as before their threat was unchallenged. George again offered them a drink from his flask. This time they didn’t rob him. They wrenched a hosepipe from his hand and drenched him from head to foot. When they had finished their humiliation of him, they sauntered off down the street, throwing catcalls and curses, falling over one another laughing at what they had just done. George just watched them. Then he turned toward the warmth giving sun, picked up his hose, and went on with his watering.
The summer was quickly fading into autumn. George was doing some tilling when he was startled by the sudden approach of someone behind him. He stumbled and fell into the border. As he struggled to regain his footing, he turned to see the leader of his summer tormentors reaching down for him. He braced himself for the expected attack. “Don’t worry old man, I’m not going to hurt you this time.” The young man spoke softly, and offered his hand to George. As he helped George get up, the man pulled a crumpled bag from his pocket and handed it to George. “What’s this?” George asked. “It’s your stuff,” the young man explained. “It’s your stuff back. Even the money in your wallet.” “I don’t understand,” George said. “Why would you help me now?” The man shifted his feet, seeming embarrassed and ill at ease. “I learned something from you”, he said. “I ran with the gang and hurt people like you. We picked you because you were old and we knew we could do it. But every time we came and did something to you, instead of yelling and fighting back, you tried to give us a drink. You didn’t hate us for hating you. You kept showing love against our hate.” He stopped for a moment. “I couldn’t sleep after we stole your stuff, so here it is back.” He paused for another awkward moment, not knowing what more there was to say. “That bag’s my way of saying thanks for straightening me out.” And with that, he walked off down the street.
George looked down at the sack in his hands and gingerly opened it. He took out his retirement watch and put it back on his wrist. Opening his wallet, he checked for his wedding photo. He gazed for a moment at the young bride that still smiled back at him from all those years ago.
George died one cold day after Christmas that winter. Many people attended his funeral in spite of the weather. In particular the vicar noticed a tall young man sitting quietly apart in a distant corner of the church. The vicar spoke of George’s garden as a lesson in life. In a voice made thick with unshed tears, he said, “Do your best and make your garden as beautiful as you can. We will never forget George and his garden.”
The following spring another appeal went up on the church notice board. It read: “Person needed to care for George’s garden.” The message went unnoticed by the busy parishioners until one day when there was a knock on the vicarage door. Opening the door, the vicar saw a young man holding the notice. “I believe this is my job, if you’ll have me,” the young man said. The vicar recognised him as the same young man who had returned the stolen watch and wallet to George. He knew that George’s kindness had turned this man’s life around. As the vicar handed him the keys to the garden shed, he said, “Yes, go take care of George’s garden and honour him.”
The man went to work and, over several years, he tended the garden just as George had done. In that time, he went to college, got married and became a respected member of the community. But he never forgot his promise to George’s memory and kept the garden as beautiful as he thought George would have kept it. One day he approached the new vicar and told him that he couldn’t care for the garden any longer. He explained with a shy and happy smile, “We have moved house, my wife just had a baby boy last night, and she’s bringing him home on Saturday.” “Well, congratulations!” said the vicar, as he was handed the garden shed keys. “That’s wonderful! What’s the baby’s name?” It was George.