A Japanese Garden

“This kind of garden is called a ‘Japanese garden’,” my father said to me.


“It’s how it’s laid out, the materials that are used. The bridges, the running water. It’s beautiful, and feels kind of… timeless.”

“And they first did these in Japan?”

“This exact style, yes. The basic idea started in China, I believe, but it changed a lot over the years.”

I was nine years old, and my father was a sort of one man Wikipedia.

“Do you like it?” he asked me.

“I do. I love all these colors.”

“It takes a lot of work to tend a place like this. The people here must work at it all year long.”

I had to ponder that. The concept of things requiring work was one I was having a hard time coming to grips with.

I’m in an art class. We are working with what were called ‘pastels’. I’m trying to sketch out a version of the gardens my family had visited two years prior.

“What are you working on?” Mrs. Gadsden asked me.

“It’s a Japanese garden.”

She stared at it intently. “Those are beautiful places. We lived in Japan for a year, not too long after the war.”

“You were in the war?”

“My husband had been, and he was stationed there immediately after. I didn’t come until he’d already been there over a year.”

“My parents lived there, too, but it was maybe 15 years ago, before I was born.”

“Are you having problems with the bridge?” She then showed me how to look at the perspective of something more or less perpendicular to the viewer. I started using what she had showed me, and she nodded, moving off to my classmate Laura (who was the best artist in class by far.)

I took the drawing home a few days later, and showed my father.

“I don’t think the colors are quite right,” he said, peering over the top of his glasses. “The perspective on the levels is off. The bridge looks good, though.”

I was eleven years old, and my father’s complete inability to lie, even to encourage a kid, was like a punch in the stomach.

I threw the picture away.

My father passed away in January of 2005. My mother died in December of 2018. Her ashes were interred in a sort of memorial garden in the retirement community she lived in the last 12 years of her life.

It’s in the form of a Japanese garden.

“How old were you when you wanted to be an artist?” my wife asked me at dinner last night. We have gone out on a date on Thursday nights for almost the entire nineteen plus years we’ve been married.

“Oh, maybe ages 8 to 11. But I sucked at it. I could see color, but I never could get shapes or textures or anything.”

“You were just a kid!”

“I was in classes with other kids who were a lot better. I just stick to coloring these days. It’s a lot of fun, and it fills up those 6 spare minutes I have every day.”

“Your dad was an artist. Did it bother him that none of you followed in his footsteps?”

“He was a pilot, too; I think it bothered him more that none of followed in those particular footsteps. My dad was not a mean guy, but he was incapable of being anything but honest: if you were off-key, or couldn’t paint, or anything else, he would point it out. When I brought home artwork, it could be painful.”

“So you just… quit?”

“No, I switched to music, where I did have some natural aptitude. And, you know, kids… I went through phases of wanting to be a lot of different things.”

“Like an auctioneer?”

I laughed. “I didn’t remember telling you that, but yes.”

“How could I forget that? That’s a very unusual thing for a child to want to be.”

It’s eleven o’clock at night, and we are laying in bed. Her phone rings.

“It’s my mom,” she says. “I’ll take it in the other room.”

“Tell her I said ‘hi’,” I say, rolling over to get ready to sleep.

The garden’s always there
To visit, in my mind —
But where the pathway leads
I never seem to find –

Beneath an ancient bridge I see
A flowing crystal stream:
These jumbled thoughts, a garden fair
That turns into

A dream

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8 Thoughts to “A Japanese Garden

  1. Hard to ‘like’ this one.. I can see the argument for not lying, but there is a much bigger one for building up rather than tearing down, and that is almost always possible while still not lying.. There are often many truths to choose from and focus on. Here, “the bridge is good” vs “the colours are off”..

    I like your teacher’s approach 🙂 and I like that you are so considering in your date nights – that’s impressive 🙂

    1. My father was well into the autistic savant area, so he was brilliant, but had some personality oddities, like being constitutionally incapable of lying on even the smallest matters.

      Mrs. Gadsden was a great teacher; I was fortunate to have several. For an eleven year-old kid, her degree of self revelation humanized her in a way no other teacher I had ever did.

      And thank you. Date nights are the best.

      1. P. S. I didn’t mean ‘considering’ (although maybe you are that too) I intended to write ‘consistent’.. Must have poked the wrong the auto-suggestion..

  2. There are three things that I seem to have a natural aptitude for…coloring, writing and being funny. As for drawing, well…my stick figures are pretty neat.

  3. that’s such a big step; loving your dad just because he was unable to lie. i think it shows how much you’ve come to love yourself-and you should! Draw us a Japanese garden sometime. It will be deeply beautiful as your piano or your writing. You understand its meaning.

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