A moment that changed me: I yearned to know my father’s identity – and in the garden, my mother opened up

In 2019, I took a DNA test and discovered that my father, who had died three months earlier, was not biologically related to me. When it came to our family history, I thought I had everything figured out, but that turned out not to be the case. The father who raised me was a foreign correspondent and his love of questions shaped me. So, after my discovery I became the reporter’s daughter, approaching family and family friends with interrogative zeal. It quickly became clear that the one person who could complete the story of my origins was my mother, who had never been a reliable raconteur. Surely, she would be more candid and forthcoming now? What mother would not want to help her child restore their biography?

But every time I tried to interview her, she would talk over my questions or demur. She would answer like a cornered politician or a toddler with cake on its mind. She threw fistfuls of grass at any query. When I told people I could not get my story out of her, they asked: “Are you sure you’re asking the right questions?” But I knew from past experience that there were no right questions.

One day later that year, in a standoff, she said: “Why don’t we take this outside?” One of the many good things about my mother is that she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty in the garden. The dirtier the better.

Slowly, we began turning the scrubby yard outside my house in downtown Toronto into a garden filled with pollinator species. I, a notorious plant killer, did not become Monty Don or Piet Oudolf, but I did grow more patient with my mother as she taught me about the plant world. All the forceful methods I had employed trying to yank up my mother’s memories had not worked. The questions I had thought would build a rope bridge connecting us had made us even more distant.

‘Occasionally it would occur to me that we had spent a whole afternoon without one question forming in my head.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Kyo Maclear

It was the garden that helped us create a new intimacy. An unexpected cluster of Virginia bluebells, a rogue patch of baptisia – vestiges of other gardens, surprises hidden at varying depths, quietly revealed themselves. Composted from residue, the perennial and unplanned, the yard became a layered and improvised meadow. All the dogged energy I had brought to uncovering my history began to soften as I saw the myriad ways plants anchor themselves to the Earth. Tangled, knobby, fibrous, sprawling – roots are seldom exactly what we expect.

In the garden, my mother began speaking more openly. As she talked about the past, I began to understand her antipathy toward questions. She had emigrated twice: to the UK in the 1960s, then Canada in the 1970s. As a Japanese woman living in all-white neighbourhoods with a white husband, she fielded a lot of intrusive questions. It took a long time for her to feel at home.

The memories she recounted were spotty; she held back facts she deemed private. But it often felt like enough, and besides, would she really be my mother if she wasn’t sometimes evasive, argumentative and a little dismissive?

Some people you will never know directly. You only come to know them by knowing the things they know, and by meeting them in their own habitat. My mother and I kept gardening over many months, to the sound of passing traffic, through her cancer diagnosis and then a diagnosis of dementia. Occasionally it would occur to me that we had spent a whole afternoon without one question forming in my head.

Then one day, in the pandemic spring of 2020, shortly after a downpour, I realised I had no more questions. At least, not big ones. I had made peace with what needed to be left deep in the dark soil, undisturbed.

Our standoff the year before had ended because I stopped demanding a story from her. But that day, as we sat together in the garden, I felt more connected to my mother than I had ever imagined possible. I knew it wouldn’t last – we are too fiercely different – but in that moment, I was not only the reporter’s daughter with a tendency to poke around, I was also the gardener’s daughter who had learned how to soften and surrender.

Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets by Kyo Maclear is published by ONE (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.

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