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When Control Freaks Age

In this Life’s a Journey essay, a writer contends with her mother letting the garden go to hell

spinner image illustration of a bulldozer on the beach on Lake Huron with a man sitting in front of a cabin in the forest in the background.
Illustration by Chris Lyons

I come from a long line of control freaks. The sort of people you don’t invite over lest they find the uneven seam in your wallpaper and remark on it. The kind of people who hold firm opinions about proper dishwasher loading and communism. Judgmental people with indomitable wills.

How control freaky are they? Once upon a time my grandfather wanted to spend the summer at his cottage in northern Michigan. The snag — he was dying and lived in Naples, Florida.

So, undeterred by advanced pulmonary fibrosis or his doctors’ warnings, he hired an RV, filled it with several tanks of oxygen, and commandeered two paid caregivers to drive 23 hours straight, 1,500 miles north, and deposit his 92-year-old, invalid self in the woods. Whereupon he let himself into the house, sat on his deck, poured himself a tumbler of vodka and gazed at the lake.

I know this, because like every other alarmed family member, I called him.

“How’s it Up North, Grandpa?” I asked.

“Not good,” he grumbled. “The beach ... there are weeds.”

You’re probably from a well-adjusted family and would sensibly point out that the shores of Lake Huron do not require weeding.

Clearly, you never met my grandfather.

The next day, he hired a front loader and bulldozed the beach. He died five months later. Defiant to the end, railing against untidy bramble.

So, it came as a shock last summer to find that his daughter, my mother, heir to a long line of control freaks, had let her garden go to hell.


What happened to the garden?

spinner image Author Tracy Schorn's parents in a kitchen in Ohio
Author’s parents in Ohio.
Courtesy Schorn

Thanks to COVID remote work, I went up to Michigan to help open my parents’ cottage and I couldn’t grasp the disarray. Where there once stood an obsessively manicured garden, now were waist-high weeds. My mother is a person who cannot walk past a plant without dead-heading it. She can spot bindweed at 50 paces. My childhood was one of indentured servitude to her garden beds. Something was clearly wrong.

But most alarming — the front yard had been overtaken by groundcover. Oh, it will just fill in the unsightly patches, my mother must’ve thought as she succumbed to the undertow of invasive species.

I immediately confronted her.

“What happened to the garden?” I gestured madly at the underbrush, channeling my grandfather.

“It’s FINE,” insisted my mother.

I called her bluff. “It is NOT fine.”

“I like to sit on the porch and see what comes up. It’s a surprise.”

Who are you and what have you done with my mother?

Like many children 50-plus with aging parents, I increasingly find myself having the “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” power struggle.

There have been other interventions. The great Spice Cupboard Purge of 2012, where I found some desiccated mint flakes older than I am. There was also the Unilateral Tupperware Upgrade, where I tossed out a generation’s worth of Cool Whip and margarine containers masquerading as storage. But I never thought I’d see the day where my mother defended pachysandra.

Did she want to live this way? Was this a cry for help?


Control-freak legacy

Eventually my mother confessed her struggle to keep up with the yard. “For Chrissake, Tracy, I don’t have the mobility to garden anymore. I’m just trying to accept it.”

But because my mother is a control freak, with an unbroken control-freak legacy, she could not accept it. She had to micromanage it. By which I mean me.

And that’s how I came to spend the COVID summer of 2020 spreading 6 cubic yards of mulch in Petoskey, Michigan.

I took on the yard work and my mother evaluated my performance of the yard work. She had “concerns” about the mulch I ordered and disdain over how I potted annuals. Would I preserve her weed-choked daylilies? There were stages of grief:

Anger. “I said BEGONIAS, Tracy! I want coral, dragon-headed BEGONIAS. Anyone can see petunias won’t do a damn thing here.”

Denial. “I never had slugs before, until you planted that dahlia.”

Bargaining. “You’re going to keep my rugosa rose, right?”

That dead, rotted shrub that gets 15 minutes of northern, 45th parallel sunlight a day? That mossy stick? In a patch of damp? Oh sure.

I cut that thing down the minute I found the hacksaw.

You’ll notice I left off acceptance. Neither of us is at acceptance yet. My mother cannot accept that if she wants me to maintain her garden, she has to cede control of her garden.

And I cannot accept her utter ingratitude at my help. I mean, 6 cubic yards of mulch. Wheeled up a 45-degree incline! Weeding those neglected beds by hand, inch by inch, foot by foot, in the cold muddy earth. For days and days!

As I was salvaging her forget-me-nots and half-dead peonies, pulling out tangles of loathsome groundcover, it occurred to me that this was all a bit ... obsessive. Really, what this garden needed was a bulldozer.

And that’s when I realized — I am the bulldozer. The destroyer of weeds. The clean-up crew of chaos. She didn’t need a front loader, she had me. My mother had securely passed the control-freak mantle on to the next generation.

Well played, Mom.


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