The story of Marilyn: A courageous post-cancer single mother and beginner food gardener

When Marilyn visited me at my garden to find out more about my one-to-one coaching in food gardening, I asked her why she wanted to learn to grow food. She replied by reminiscing about her old nanny pottering in the backyard tending to an array of herbs and vegetables when she was a little girl. I could tell that she held fond and vivid memories of her nanny. More than thirty years later, Marilyn moved back into that family house and wanted to grow food in the backyard just as her nanny did but she did not know how. 

She also told me a deeper reason:

“I moved back in with my parents when I fell very sick from cancer four years ago. I recovered from that and went back to work as a manager of a high-end jewellery store. I am very grateful to my company for being incredibly supportive throughout my illness and I love the high quality craftsmanship of the gemstones that we sell. But I am finding myself in a spiral of stress and fatigue from working long retail hours and carrying a heavy managerial burden. I want to do gardening because I want to do something that is the complete opposite of the toxicity that I encounter everyday at work.”

I was struck by her last sentence so I asked her to elaborate. She explained,

“In the luxury and branded goods industry, there is a strong culture of materialism. Before my illness, I enjoyed acquiring luxury branded goods and they made me feel happy…even though just for a short while. When I was ill for long months, none of those material things motivated me be happy or get better. Instead, after not being touched for a long time they became mouldy and dull and they couldn’t give joy. I realised it was frivolous and empty.

After my illness, because of the change in me, I struggled with the materialistic culture in my work. This made me question if this is where and how I want to spend my limited energy because I really need to spend my energy with my young daughter. I am a single mom. I am now talking to my bosses to step down as a manager so that I can work regular hours in backend operations. The big pay cut is hard to let go but I want to make use of whatever time I have left to live meaningfully and to spend it with my daughter.

I think gardening will help me to lead a slower, simpler, calmer, more down-to-earth life that I wish to have.”

Marilyn’s backyard before we started work.

So we started work. Over three sessions, we worked side-by-side to set up her edible garden from scratch. First I assessed the condition of her native garden soil and sun exposure in her backyard. Then we worked out a list of edibles that she liked to eat that would thrive with her sun and soil conditions. Due to the waterlogged nature of her soil, we settled on a mix of in-ground planting for more wet-tolerant plants and big containers for the rest. I showed her step-by-step how to prepare soil before planting, how to start herbs and veggies from seed, how to transplant seedlings, and how to provide continuous plant nutrition. 

Marilyn’s garden after 6 weeks.

There were surprises and challenges along the way including one burst pipe, one extremely waterlogged patch of soil that was also clogged with 40 year-old mango tree roots, and one lost spade (eventually found buried at the bottom of a deep pot). Marilyn took them all with a rare combination of light-heartedness and humour on the one hand, and grit and focus on the other. She has even expanded her plant collection on her own to include tomatoes, chillies, bitter gourd, rosemary, chives and more.

We met for lunch recently and I asked her to reflect on her gardening experience so far. She said,

“The gardening work is physically tiring, but I feel satisfied and purposeful in nurturing my plants and harvesting them for my meals. It’s such a simple pleasure to enjoy nature right in my backyard – we don’t have to do big trips to the big outdoors to enjoy nature. There are some challenges with some plants, but they don’t stress me out because I find joy in tending to them and you are guiding me to try different solutions.

Gardening gives me space to breathe and rest and be prepared for the next thing that life throws at me.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of Marilyn’s change journey. From her, I am learning how to be courageous in making and sticking to hard decisions, being intentional in how we live, and grateful for who and what we have in our backyard. I continue to support her gardening via WhatsApp and I look forward to learning together as we garden together. Thank you Marilyn for being vulnerable in sharing your life story with me, and trusting me to share it with others. It is more precious than gemstones.

Marilyn’s remark on her desire to do gardening because it is the complete opposite of the highly materialistic culture that she encounters daily at her workplace gave me a lot of food for thought. It made me wonder if the antidote to materialism is materiality, that innate desire in us to touch and relate to real matter that is warm, earthy and alive! Like people. Like animals. Like plants. Like soil.


Note: Name has been changed because this is a true story.

Marilyn’s garden after 8 weeks.

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