There’s a landscaper in town whom I’ve known for over a decade, but mainly through wonderful conversations we’ve shared at gallery openings, theater intermissions, and our neighborhood pub. He is tall and handsome with a rustic elegance, his long curly hair ponytailed beneath a tattered straw hat that reminds me of Van Gogh. I’ve always liked this man immensely – he’s funny and smart and loves musical theatre, among other stellar traits. He lives alone with his dogs, I believe, having long ago split from a long-term partner. But, again, I don’t know him well enough to say for sure. He’s one of those naturally genteel people who’s warm and open, but respectful of boundaries, so his private life is a mystery to me.
Last night, we were talking at the aforementioned neighborhood pub, and somehow, the conversation turned to “sorority girls.” (I think we were discussing a friend’s daughter’s imminent departure for college.) He told me a story about the time he was working as a gardener at the Tri Delt house at the University of Georgia. It was 1972, and my friend had just graduated from college, himself. But now he found himself on his knees, digging in the dirt, as the Tri Delts walked by and ignored him, their pretty noses upturned… or, worse yet, looked down on him and laughed. Later that week, he was invited by a school employee to go as her escort to a party inside the Tri Delt house. Always ready for adventure, my friend got up from his knees, brushed himself off, put on a suit, and went.
As I said, he is quite handsome even now, as a man in his 60s wearing a Van Gogh hat. I can only imagine the kind of matinee idol appeal he conjured back then, upon donning that suit. Suddenly, he told me, all those standoffish Tri Delts were swarming around him, saying “hey” and batting their lashes and asking him coy questions.
“Man, I bet that ticked you off!” I said, ready to hear a screed against sorority girls.
“Nah,” he said. “They didn’t know any better. That was just the milieu they were raised in. It would never have occurred to them that the guy in the suit at the party that night was the same guy on his knees in the garden that morning. I was just glad they were finally talking to me!”
That’s the kind of man my friend is. I never hear a bitter word leave his lips. He’s no dummy, nor does he wear rose-colored glasses, but he has this gentle, forgiving view of humanity that always makes me feel the need to reevaluate my own.
Though he himself lives very simply in my humble neighborhood, my friend handles the personal landscapes and gardens of many of Beaufort’s wealthier citizens.
“Lots of my landscaping friends do commercial only,” he told me last night. “When I tell them I do mainly residential, they say, “Oh, how can you stand it? How can you stand to deal with those rich housewives?”
I take it that many of his clients are an older version of those Tri Delts from 40 years ago. And my friend’s take on them is every bit as tender and gracious now as it was then.
“I tell them it’s really not so bad,” he laughs. “In fact, I like getting to know my clients. I enjoy their company! Sometimes, I think just listening to them is the biggest part of my job. Some of them just really need someone to talk to. You never know the struggles people are enduring inside those big houses.”
Indeed. You never do.
“That’s some good work you’re doing,” I said. “In fact, I think it’s God’s work.”
“Well, I hope so,” he said. “That’s why I went into landscaping in the first place, actually. I thought it was something I could do for people that would make their lives a little easier and better. Isn’t that why we’re all here? To make each other’s lives a little easier and better, however we can? That’s what I believe, anyway.”
So he lives modestly, writes checks to his favorite causes whenever he can (“I get 6 or 8 requests in the mail every day!”), works hard under the Lowcountry sun to make people’s yards more beautiful, and lends an interested ear to anybody who needs one. (Sometimes, that’s me.)
In other words, he tends his garden.
“What will you do in the mundane days of faithfulness?” asked Martin Luther.
This, I think.
(Some of my local readers will recognize my friend immediately from the portrait I’ve drawn here. I don’t think he’s an Internet guy, and it would probably be best if we didn’t mention this to him. He’d be embarrassed. You know how humble he is.)