My mother gave me an old clothbound book when I was nine years old. It was her childhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I felt a sudden tug of connection to the little girl my mother once was, especially when I found her name carefully penciled on the inside cover. Right away, I signed my name under hers.
Although written in 1911 and clotted with Yorkshire dialect, that book became an essential nutrient to me. It told the story of orphaned Mary Lennox who was sent to live with her silent brooding uncle on the English moor. Little Mary had no lessons imposed on her and was given the opportunity to explore. I envied her freedom. A character named Dickon befriended animals so easily that they gathered at his feet and ate from his hand. I, too, liked to go in the forest behind our house in hopes that woodland creatures there would come to accept me. And I understood Mary’s response when her uncle inquired if she wanted anything. He suggested toys or dolls. Instead she asked, “Might I have a bit of earth?”
More than my favorite book, The Secret Garden provided comfort at a time when I could find no other solace. The year I received my mother’s copy was also the year that one after another of my grandparents succumbed to long, painful illnesses. By the time I turned ten, all my grandparents had died.
I’d watched them struggle for each breath but it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t get better. That’s what doctors and medicine were for. That’s what prayer was for. Now we would never have Sunday dinner together again. The seasons would come and go without canning applesauce or planting bulbs or going to the lake with my grandparents as we always did. I couldn’t stop thinking about death.
Other children probably weather grief with more resilience but that year was a dividing line for me. The blithe happiness of my childhood came to a halt. I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone I loved would die some day—my pet rabbits, my friends, and worst of all, my parents. My mother assured me that God simply called people home to heaven when it was their time. I kept asking why, if God were all-powerful, would He allow people like my grandparents to suffer so horribly before they died. She said His wisdom was beyond our understanding. Her answers left me with more and more questions. I could see asking them only intensified the sorrow she felt. So I tried to keep my worries to myself.
Now added to my fear of this unknown thing called death a new bleakness was added. Where I once prayed and worshipped without doubts, I was set adrift somewhere beyond my parents’ beliefs. Religion seemed piteously small when confronted with bigger dilemmas. And more of them occurred to me each day. What was the purpose of existence in a universe of unimaginably vast time and space? How did everything start when it had to come from somewhere? How did our tiny lives matter? I didn’t like the thought that adults believed in something that made no sense. I felt I was standing in a blizzard outside the warmth of answers that faith provided. It was lonely.
I tried to reconstruct my comfortably safe worldview with the tools I’d been taught were the most powerful: good behavior and prayer. I knew I wasn’t really the good girl I seemed to be. I was a picky eater, I argued with my sister, and I was lazy about chores. So I tried hard to be better, to be so worthy that no one else I loved would be taken away. The effort was a useful distraction from my preoccupation with big questions about death, meaninglessness, and infinity.
And I prayed, fiercely and in my own way, using pictures in my head and silent words. It was a gamble because I was no longer sure that God existed or if He did how on the job He was, but I had to do my best to keep my family alive. Here’s how the keep-them-alive game worked. If I thought of people I loved I had to pray for them. This was somewhat less burdensome at school because I was busy. It was overwhelming when my parents went out for the evening. I thought of my mother and father constantly, each time silently praying that they would come home safely. I summoned up images of my parents driving, chatting with their friends, driving home, then walking in the door. My whole body could feel the relief of that imaginary return. But as the evening wore on my prayers got more fervent and I took up a position watching cars go down the street. They were always later than I expected, probably because I was constantly willing them home. As soon as their car pulled in the driveway I ran to bed, feeling a sense of blessed completeness I couldn’t explain. They were back. Everything was okay. It was exhausting.
I couldn’t imagine how but my parents weren’t fooled by the cheery act I put on. My mother told me that sometimes people need more help getting over their grief. She made an appointment for me to see a psychotherapist. I knew full well what this meant. I’d read my share of children’s books where unfortunate characters are locked up in institutions or sent away for their own good. It rarely went well for them. I was determined to act as un-crazy as possible. The day of my first appointment my mother made me wear a summer dress, sweater, and saddle shoes—the clunkiest fashion statement imaginable even to my ten-year-old sensibilities.
My mother usually stayed with me in the pediatrician’s office so I expected the same. Instead I was ushered in to see the doctor by myself. An older lady sat behind a large desk. She asked me to sit facing her in a chair much too large for me. I sat, my throat clenched with so much tension that it was hard to swallow. She asked me how I felt about coming in. I knew it wasn’t polite to admit my true feelings. Kids constantly have to filter what they do and say to please adults. So even though I feared and despised everything about the appointment I told her I was fine and didn’t need to be there and I was perfectly happy except for the embarrassing outfit I was wearing. I said it nicely. In fact I thought my comment about the outfit was a light hearted joke. The doctor turned it into the topic of a lengthy question and answer session. She seemed to think I hated my mother for making me wear clothes I didn’t like. I couldn’t imagine that she’d had a mother recently or she would know that mothers make you do all sorts of things you don’t want to do. Eat all your dinner, clean your room, write thank you notes, well the list was endless. Frankly a dorky outfit was the least of it. Clearly I would have to filter what I said even more carefully.
Next she got out a series of large black and white photographs. She said it was a fun kind of test. I always got good grades on tests at school but the rules were pretty flimsy for this one. All I had to do was look at the pictures and tell her a story about what was happening. That included what happened right before the picture was taken and what would happen immediately afterwards. The first picture showed a dark-haired woman walking by herself on a beach. She didn’t look all that happy. Right behind her was a man with his arms reached up in such a way that he seemed ready to choke her. The look on his face was creepy as well as dangerous. But I put the lightest tone possible in my voice and told the doctor that it was the woman’s birthday and she didn’t know her friend had come to surprise her. He was going to put his hands over her eyes and ask her to guess who, and she’d be delighted. Nearly every picture was equally disturbing. I churned through them with Pollyanna-ish stories in my attempt to demonstrate just how mentally healthy I could be.
Next she brought up my grandparents’ deaths. The questions she asked were so upsetting and intrusive that I couldn’t answer. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. Having a stranger try to get me to tell her things about those who were newly dead alarmed my whole body. I could feel every inch of the chair touching me. The smell of the office, dusty and airless, made me want to choke. Although I willed them away, tears kept springing up in my eyes, and I set my mouth as tightly closed as I could.
The doctor changed her tactics back to the earlier conversation about my mother. I tried to unlock my mouth into a polite smile but I desperately wanted to run out the door. I knew my mother would be waiting, ready with a comforting hug. All I needed to do was just hold on until the appointment was over. Then the doctor made a statement so insane that it seemed whole adult world might be slipping away on a raft built without logic. She said I was upset because I wanted my mother dead.
That was it. I was willing to sacrifice the time I’d invested in good girl behavior but I would never go back there. I would do whatever it took. I would throw fits if necessary but I would not speak to that doctor again. On the drive home and all through supper I tried to figure out how to best make my stand. I decided to be logical and calm, although I wanted more than anything else to climb into my mother’s lap. That evening I sat with my mother, the person I prayed for most often, and lost my struggle to keeping from crying. I told her the unspeakable thing the doctor had said. My mother was gratifyingly appalled. She hugged me for a long time and then we talked as if we were on one side and the doctor on the other. It was delicious.
My mother called the doctor the next day and afterwards confirmed that I was a good judge of character. I would not have to go back. I overheard her telling my father that the doctor “didn’t have her head screwed on tight.” But my mother did think the doctor was right about one thing. I wasn’t getting over my grandparents’ deaths.
That wasn’t it. The loss of my grandparents had tossed me into a realm of questions I couldn’t ask and worries that faith couldn’t explain. I knew my parents were concerned about me so I ramped up the cheerful act. Masking my fears actually helped, at least during the day. But at night I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t work hard to steer my mind relentlessly toward peaceful thoughts I’d feel as if I were falling into dark nothingness. The galaxies we learned about in fourth grade, black and endless, seemed like a void that would swallow up everything I knew. On the worst nights I could feel the fabric of the ordinary world stretched thin over a much larger unknown. Then I couldn’t even cry myself to sleep.
So I resorted to the distraction of reading. As soon as the rest of my family went to bed I turned my light back on. Most often I chose The Secret Garden. I turned to the same passages over and over. I read about the garden that seemed dead in the early spring chill until Mary cleared away branches and leaves to find tender green sprouts in the soil. I read about the crippled boy whose limitations Mary refused to accept and of his triumphant recovery in that garden. I read about her sorrowful uncle who awakened to joy after years of despair. Then I could sleep.
I don’t regret the fears and doubts of my childhood. They set me on a richly rewarding lifelong path of seeking answers to big questions. But I didn’t realize why I turned to The Secret Garden until I found the book years later. I opened it to see two childish signatures, my mother’s and my own. Rereading it, I recognized the passages that sustained me when I felt most lost. Each one was about about redemption, nature’s wisdom, and offered what I needed most of all, simple hope.
If I could meet a person from history I’d choose Frances Hodgson Burnett. I now know about the losses she suffered, the despair she fought, and the writing that was her life’s work. I’d tell her, a bit shyly, that I make a living as a writer too. I don’t think I could express how profoundly her book calmed a little girl too upset to sleep but I’d want her to know that her words were a soothing balm during those dark nights.
And I’d tell her that The Secret Garden didn’t just save me, it also shaped my future. Today I live on a small farm where my children have no lessons imposed, just like Mary. The animals here eat from my hand, as those in the book did from Dickon’s hand. Maybe I’d simply say, “Frances, our land is named after lines you wrote. We call it Bit of Earth Farm.”