When I enter the new greenhouse my husband has built for his bonsai in our backyard I am sure I am going to retch. It is as if I have stepped into a snow globe of my own life, and I am stirred to the point of dizziness remembering the last time my sister and I visited my father in Tennessee.
He had recently decided to become a born-again Christian and was making a new life with a woman with five kids of her own. Each morning, the new wife would shoo us outside with her three youngest children and we’d pretend we were hardscrabble pioneers in the dappled sunlight in the woods out back. The fire ants of the American South were an easy danger to avoid – just wear socks and shoes – but my sister, 14, was constantly preparing herself for a losing battle of rhetoric with my stepmother. Of late she had taken to memorizing passages from the Bible, the only book that hadn’t been banned from the house. My sister would trace lines of the words from the Book of Matthew condemning divorce to use later: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” I preferred to capitulate early and often in the smallest ways possible. I would enter the rooms of their vast house on Castlewood Trail only after I knew she had left.
During that month-long visit we yearned for the weekends, when our father wouldn’t leave us before daylight and return after dark with just a hug and a quick prayer before bed. But on the second Saturday of our visit he had a project in his bones and so he rose early and began erecting a cedar playhouse on stilts. He sweated like water was a second skin as he dug pits with a post hoe and held a level to the side of the posts to make sure they could stand tall and firm. He poured cement around the base, carving the names of all five children inside, though I knew even at 11 that my name there was a concession. Every few hours I would drop everything and run back to him to see if he was ready for me, only to find him laboring with singular focus on this ghost frame of a house.
As the day passed, a thin layer of sawdust gathered around the base of the stilts and filled the air with the scent of freshly sharpened pencils, almost reverently balsamic in the dry Tennessee heat. By the time we were ready to return to our mother and our days of more easily navigable fellowship, my father had laid the structure for the floor of the playhouse but no more. I took a last look at it before we threw our suitcases in the car. My sister could barely sit in her seat on the plane back, and when she returned with a backside bruised and blue my mother vowed we would never go back there again.
I leave the greenhouse to my husband for a few weeks as he populates it with the things that bring him peace: rich succulents, time-worn junipers and fragrant basil overflowing its pot. He has carved a symbol representing each of us and our two boys in the rafters. One night, when he hasn’t returned home on time, I must gather the basil myself, so I head to greenhouse. The door squeaks with the music of some timeless domesticity as I unhinge and pull it open. I cut some leaves, quickly, and run back inside. As the weeks pass I do it every day until I am rewriting history, until cedar is not the smell of a house that was never built, but just a note in this place where everything grows when tended, where my husband cares for his tiny trees, where he sees every leaf through from sprouted tuft to withered crinkling dust.
- Emily Grosvenor