Home for Christmas: Winter in the Childhood Garden


My childhood family garden has always belonged to Mum. Mum's garden. Mum's shed. Mum's chickens. Dad might strim a hedge or two, and fell an unwanted holly bush annually, but his interest wanes at edging beds or planting lavender plants five in a row. Even the more manual chore of mowing the lawn is now resolutely Mum's job. It's her garden: we merely visit it, admire it and labour in it for her.

The over-grown vegetable patch waiting to be restructured in spring.

Which is, increasingly, how coming home for Christmas feels as I creep into my twenties. However resolutely the Kehoe siblings are told that this will always be our home, each festive visit  reiterates the nagging sense of displacement as the childhood confidence in owing this space melts away into the realisation that one day in the not-too-distant-future we will only visit this house, and that it will not be our home. There seems no concrete line when the change happens, but one day I will visit my parents for Christmas, before returning to a new home that isn't Chauffeur's Cottage. That day is closer now than it has ever been.

For now, we are quasi-guests, comfortable but temporary. Each day of the Christmas periods reminds us of our displacement when drinking glasses are found to reside in unknown places and our clothes are hung in wardrobes that have new inhabitants (that don't belong to us). The ownership of the garden encroaches inwards, winding tendrils into the windows of the house, marking out the territory as familiar but owned by Mum, not us.

Mum incinerating the wrapping paper from Christmas Day

Now, when I return home, I am given the regular tour of Mum's garden. How the old are doing, what is new, what needs changing and what needs to be thought about changing. Chicken eggs are collected in pockets, the compost bin is given a berating for not being turned over in a decade. Winter is a moment of opportunity for Mum: to plan, to imagine, a glimmer of a future garden seeded in the wet mud. Unlike me, she knows the placement of the bulbs that are pushing against the soil deep down. She remembers the roots of hidden plants resting under the mud, waiting for the warmth of spring.

For me, the winter garden is more peaceful.  The woody stems of bare clematis creating architectural cages over fences, mossy pots standing to attention ready to be scrubbed. Every plant is waiting, pausing. Even the blooms of the winter-flowing clematis are unobtrusive, noticeable only if you look (and hard).  The silence of the damp earth patiently waits out the dim, cold winter months, expectations brimming just below the surface of the ground where roots continue to grow. But my image of the garden is only half formed. It is, after all, not my garden.

The winter blooming clematis

This is Mum's garden. Its future shape is held by her and I can only visit it when she grants me a comment or two. The four new veg patch beds will sit here, these dogwoods will be planted in that  space.  The beds are going to be extended round the corner in spring. She maps out the spring movements, the garden centre trips and the weeding days one-by-one.

Gardens are always owned by just one person. There is no such thing as a communal garden; they are either somebody's or they are a park (which isn't a garden). My childhood garden will always be Mum's. Resolute in the winter weather,  always present, always encompassing. It's her garden, but I'm allowed to walk in it.

A Viburnam, bright against the dimness of Winter