Maria Juhasz, 46, closes her eyes and pushes her fingertips deeper into garden soil. She wiggles them through the dirt until they touch just below the stem of a Mexican petunia. She doesn't wear an iPod, carry a cell phone, sing or even hum. For hours at a time she is absolutely quiet. The gentle tickle of sweat rolling on her skin and feeling of careless dirt on her body assures her she is not lazy. In her garden she is strong, capable, intelligent, at peace and in control. She forgets about her cares: the foreclosure notice on her home; how she will stretch her groceries to last through the week; and the appraisal that says her home is worth $40,000 less than she paid for it less than two years ago near the peak of the housing market. The appraisal that she says puts no value on the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours she has put into landscaping. The appraisal that counts only bricks, mortar and comparable sales.
If the bank doesn't appreciate the value of her yard, she will. Everything she has planted at her home is being pulled back up, repotted with care, and set in rows to be sold to anyone who replies to her online ad:
Plants for Sun and Shade-Great Prices! (St. Pete, 5728 2nd Ave. North)
Reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Even if I'm selling the plants at 10 or 20 percent of what they cost, I'm getting something back," she says."I've cried over this, but never out here."
Juhasz, who has a master's degree in education administration, came to St. Petersburg to work as a substitute teacher and pursue her teaching certification. Buying a home was cheaper than renting, and no one loses money in Florida real estate, right? So she bought a 756-square-foot home in 2006 for $153,000. She completed her certification, but has been unable to get a full-time job. In 2007, her taxes and insurance went up beyond her means and she has been trying to catch up ever since.
Eyes closed, she leans into the shade of a spruce tree and digs into another cluster of petunias. As she inhales the smell of evergreen fills her lungs and floods her with memories.
Working near the spruce always takes her back to the first time she left home. She is 7 years old, living with her family in a tent under a cluster of pine trees in Yugoslavia. They are in a campground, among dozens of other families and the ever-present smell of pine.
She remembers the faces of all sorts of playmates coming and going. No one speaks the same language, so they communicate with hand gestures and silly faces.
The faces come and go. Days roll together into weeks. Weeks into months. With memories recorded through the worry-free eyes of a child, Juhasz remembers her family's flight from their native Czechoslovakia.
It is 1968. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to quell a pro-democracy movement that would later be dubbed the Prague Spring. Juhasz remembers destroyed roads, joining the kids on her street taunting soldiers with machine guns, and grownups rushing them inside. One day her parents packed up the car for what seemed like a normal vacation. They went to Yugoslavia and lived in a campground for four months while the family applied for asylum. She remembers going from there to Chicago, and her father working as a janitor while he struggled to learn English.
Another cluster of Mexican petunias goes into another pot. Memories and thoughts comfort Juhasz as she tears apart her garden.
"Just thinking of those days that I saw my parents struggle. I think they were able to succeed despite much bigger odds against them. I certainly can, as well."