Years ago, when I lived in Scotland I remember a senior residential worker passing on to me the insight that people like gardeners and cooks were often best placed to be alongside children and young people in situations and at times when genuine exchanges might take place. I have borne this in mind ever since, and it seems to me to be true. One of the great advantages of a residential setting over say counselling or formal treatment is that it offers the in-between times and spaces, when there are opportunities to say things, or listen to someone who just happens to be there. It’s not about anything formal, or fulfilling a role. It’s more like two human beings relating to each other spontaneously.
So it is that I share with you about a wheelbarrow. Just to set the scene: at Mill Grove, one of my roles is that of gardener. I am responsible for the trees, the bushes and the grass, so it is not uncommon to find me with a lawn-mover or pushing a wheelbarrow. In fact the pre-school children rarely come across me in any other role, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when one of the four-year olds asked me, “Uncle Keith, do you sleep in the big garden?”
Most often I push the wheelbarrow only when I have specific tasks to do, but on one occasion recently I had just learned that a son of one of the pre-school staff had died in tragic circumstances the day before, so I wanted to be alongside and available to all the staff. As everyone was outside in the playground and orchard on a cloudless spring morning no one seemed surprised to see me appearing behind the wheelbarrow. I was able to push it around getting alongside first one, and then another of the staff. They were pretty much in a state of shock, so there wasn’t much to be said. It was simply a case of being there with them.
As we stood and chatted the children carried on with their activities which included riding on trundle toys, kicking and throwing footballs, playing around the allotment paths, and reading in the outside library. The normality of their play and interactions was somehow reassuring. It was a visible reminder that life carried on come what may. One of the staff told me that she had been thinking how fortunate she was to be alive following a serious brain tumour. Another told me that she had lost her two sisters at an early age, and that this event brought it all back. It had taken her something like six years to begin to come to terms with her loss. And then another of the staff looked to me for a hug: she had lost one of her own sons in not dissimilar circumstances less than two years before.
I had some grass cuttings in the barrow and so as several children gathered around I enlisted their help in getting the barrow to the compost heap. We managed to push it up a plank together and unload our cargo, before I offered a ride to one of the helpers. We all imagined that it was a steam train, and made appropriate sounds as it drew up beside two other locomotives (that both looked distinctly like wheelbarrows)! Had there been time we would have made lots of trips in the wheelbarrow turned train, but a visitor had arrived to see me, and so my time was over.
Just a day later I had completed email correspondence, the first draft of a paper, and some minutes of a board meeting, in time to greet one of those in the Mill Grove family who calls me Grandpa. I told him that I would appreciate some help cutting down a tree. He was delighted to have been asked and so we walked hand-in-hand down to the orchard where he jumped into the wheelbarrow as we set off for the big garden. Once again we imagined it was a train, and I asked him to be the driver alerting me to any hazards ahead. We stopped at the garden shed to collect some cutters and a bow saw which he held carefully as we continued our journey to the area behind the Leylandii where we store branches and brushwood ready for our November 5th bonfire celebrations.
I asked him if he could see an Elderberry tree that was growing uninvited, but he told me he didn’t know what it would look like. So we found it together and saw that it had a very different trunk and leaves to the Leylandii that towered above us. He handed me the tools and then jumped out of the wheelbarrow as we set about dismantling the rogue tree. I cut the branches and handed them to him. He placed them neatly alongside the garden wall, each one parallel to the wall. He did it meticulously. Time was running out because it was nearly time for our evening meal, but we managed to finish the job by cutting the main trunk down just above the ground.
Then the train drew out of the tunnel formed by the Leylandii, past the newly appearing rhubarb near the spot where the bonfire is located each year. We hung up the cutters and saw, when his sister appeared with the news that the meal was ready. On seeing her brother having a ride she wanted to jump on board too. So she did and we set off with all the right noises of a steam train towards to orchard.
As we did so we reminisced about our summer holiday the previous August in North Wales. One of the memorable days together had involved a ride on a steam train from Beddgelert to Porthmadog. And there were lots of photos of the two of them on both platforms, as well as on the train. They said that they hoped they could go to Wales again this year.
Having alighted, we went inside, washed our hands together and re-joined the rest of the family, including their new baby sister born the day before! We had an enjoyable meal during which we chatted about Mr and Mrs Fox who I had mentioned during the wood-cutting.
It was you might say an uneventful time together with little of note. But I am inclined to see it as a time when our relationship continued to develop, when past and future were connected, and when brother and sister shared happily together, and when we enjoyed teamwork and doing a job well.
But it probably seemed uneventful to everyone else, and that’s just the point. We hadn’t planned to do this: it just happened in the normal course of events in the life of a gardener. I reckon lots of teachers and social workers would have given their right arms for that sort of opportunity. Having a burger together in McDonalds either with the pre-school staff and pupils, or these two members of the extended family wouldn’t have been the same at all however hard I might have tried!