A few weeks after we moved into our new house, my parents came to visit. The boxes had been unpacked and the rooms set up – for now – and with the weather warming, we turned our attention to the little back garden. I had pulled out a bed of insidious ground cover that ran along the back fence, like a springy green carpet, and taken out an unremarkable yellow bush that seemed to squat damply in the corner. An axe had seen to another unremarkable tree that erupted from the ground cover and stood, lost and alone, not pretty enough nor healthy enough to do much else except draw the eye from the springy green carpet. To fill the new space, I chose six photinias and together with Mum and Dad – who still claims to have put his sweat and tears into this particular task – we hoisted them home and planted them along the back fence. Six little shiny shrubs, the colours of Christmas. Mum had grown red robins in our garden at home and, as I was to increasingly find as my little garden grew, I used it like the walls in my new house: where possible, I would buy things that reminded me of home, or things that were Australian in origin that had been adapted for this hemisphere, like the little Granny Smith apple tree I put in the corner at the end of our first summer here.
This year, for their third spring with us, the red robins turned the most brilliant crimson, and then for the first time, they bloomed. Overnight, bunches of tiny cream flowers sprung up, the bushes suddenly covered in handfuls of lace. It would seem, that after an unusually cold first winter in which they sat sadly under dumps of snow and then an unusually hot summer, they have finally found their feet. So, this spring, has the little apple tree in the corner. It burst into song last year as April ticked into May but produced no fruit. This year, though, after its white flowers fell, there was something in their place: clusters of tiny hard green apples. Mum says I have to thin them out, give the young tree only what its spindliness can handle – too much and it will be stressed and the fruit not particularly good. I’ll give it a few days – it looks so proud.
For my thirtieth birthday, my husband gave me a beautiful tennis racquet. I played tennis for what feels like every day of my life from the age of eight until I left university. I loved it and then, when I moved to Germany, I stopped. Part of it was because I was a little tired, happy to hang things up for a while, but another part of it was simple pragmatism. I didn’t bring my racquet with me, tennis courts were indoors and not within walking distance from my apartments, and I had other things more pressing to do and pay for. Also, and rather simply, I didn’t have anyone to play with. It is these small things when you move – finding someone who’ll go to the movies with you, a tennis partner, a hairdresser. These terribly, terribly obvious makers of ordinariness. Anyway, when we moved to Kiel, we moved within walking distance of two clubs and I started wanting to play again. So along came my beautiful new racquet, but then also came my lovely new son and then a lovely new job and then a lovely new house in a lovely new village and getting back into the shorts and onto the courts fell by the wayside again.
This last weekend, our village’s tennis club held its open day. It was hot and bright, the clubhouse full of cake and coffee. The clay courts were immaculate, freshly watered and so red against the blue June sky. I picked up a racquet for the first time in Germany since a one-off hit I had in Münster in 2012 and it was like introducing a best friend from another time in my life, to a new friend who had no idea this other person existed. Tennis has always been something I have done at home, usually in the blistering, sweaty heat of high summer. It hadn’t, until last weekend, really come with me to Germany: like high heels, it had stayed a part of my Sydney-spent twenties.
We are now proud members of our village tennis club and I’ve hauled another part of my ‘other life’ over the seas, made some room for something I have never had time or space for in Germany before. It has only taken around eight years, but it all takes time, doesn’t it? Gardeners say plants get ‘established’ – some take mere weeks for their roots to establish themselves, their stalks and stems and leaves growing almost in plain sight. They’re the ones without much time, they have to act fast, flourish extravagantly. Other plants take longer, their first flourishes far from extravagant, but they get there. The apples and the red robin’s flowers, the peonies and the roses. The tortoises.
In the years I have been living here, growing at times uncomfortably, at other times so contentedly, I have learnt the process of establishment is one that requires you prune and thin things out, so you only carry what you can bear. It means some years you’ll be less showy, less colourful than you perhaps once were – and you will miss large parts of your ‘old’ self, the bits you cast off, the bits too heavy or inconvenient to relocate, the bits that you didn’t have time or money to feed – like tennis and regular haircuts and movie dates. And I have learnt that establishment is not only for when you move geographically, but also for when you shift within your own self, take on perhaps another identity – motherhood, for me. Once more, you thin things out, close off the rest of the world and make yourself strong so you can get through the seasons of neediness of physical and emotional demand. Seasons pass and you prune and shed, grow a little, keep pushing into the earth to steady yourself.
And I have learnt that one day, you’ll look up and you’ll be covered in flowers, your trunk not so easily swayed by the wind anymore. And all that you pruned, all those things you once always did, that fell by the wayside while you were establishing yourself elsewhere, as someone else – they will come back – and you will flourish. Perhaps even extravagantly.