The very first time I had a garden on a public tour it rained. A steady, all-day rain, something to be much appreciated after a long, hot summer. That said, I had just spent about six weeks in exhausting heat, beginning August 1, whipping the place into shape for that tour, so I was not one bit appreciative of that admitted blessing. The tour was neither postponed nor cancelled. It was just unattended. Well, almost—14 people came, just over two people for every week of work getting ready. There isn’t really a word for how unhappy I was about that.
But Nita being Nita, Nita came. It is something a friend would do so she did. We went to high school together and then to the University of Oklahoma together (Boomer Sooners!), ending up eventually a couple of suburbs apart in North Texas. That rainy day, she carried her baby grandson, Wyatt. Granddaughter Lainey, then I guess about four or five, skipped into the garden alongside them. They stayed over two hours, settling in on the screened porch. I had not seen Nita for a shamefully long time before that day but we laughed and chatted away the time between our rare, umbrellaed visitors, almost forgetting that the garden was on tour until some bedraggled soul walked through the gate.
She had been a journalism major at OU and never went anywhere without a camera. More accurately, a few cameras. In my opinion, it was not a good day to take pictures, but she told me the low light allowed her to capture rich color and lushness. So, as Wyatt napped in his carrier on the porch and Lainey made sure the few visitors fully appreciated the fairy garden under the gigantic oleander bush, Nita transformed my waterlogged beds into a paradise with her selective, artistic eye. That is how the magic began, that day in the rain; friendship transforming a dismal day in every way.
The garden became a destination for Nita and whichever of her four grandchildren she was looking after at the time, usually Wyatt and Abby, the youngest, but sometimes Maddie came and upon occasion Lainey reappeared as well, as did Nita’s husband, Mikel, and her son, Tony. For the kids, it was an escape from home, one where no one had to be quiet or still, the price of admission one Diet Cherry Limeade, Extra Stems (Sonic lingo for extra cherries). The payoff for the gardener—me—far exceeded my hopes every time. To see this place I had created as they saw it, with birds and insects and reptiles and rabbits, nooks and places to sit that were not nooks and places to sit at all before then, rocks to gather and spread, work to be done that only children can see and that only small hands can accomplish.
Most of all, there was Nita, the perfect guest, fascinated and fascinating. She had a way of listening that made you choose what you told her, and how you told it, with care. Tell her a good yarn and her eyes sparkled, her whole face laughing, mouth open as if unable to contain her glee. Tell her your troubles and risk it taking some time for the storm to subside. There was never any doubt what Nita thought, even without audio. And there was always audio, condemning behavior not to her standards in swift, unmistakable strokes, her words never minced. Not only was it relaxing to have someone so open as my friend, but she was al-ways on my side. Presumably she would not have been if I didn’t deserve it, but evidently I always did. You recall, however, that I used care in what I told her and how I phrased it. I had known her a very long time.
And she was always and forever taking photographs. Nita could capture what I saw in the garden, what was special about the plant or the setting, when I could not. I did not have her eye or her patience.
Nita was the yin to my yang (or is it the other way around?). I sought the beauty of planned plantings, large, long-lasting blooms. She would spend long periods focusing her lens on a single small river rock or the seed head from a peony-flowered poppy, things I saw without seeing. While my eye skipped across the garden, gently chastising it for its faults, Nita saw everything and loved what she saw; the shape, color or texture, or merely the cycle of life, plenty-to-overflowing enough to fill her with happiness. I loved the garden but Nita loved nature. I learned the difference only from my time with her. She took more than pleasure from life, she lived in joy. There were so very many lessons to be gleaned from her that even an older dog (yes, me) unintentionally lapped them up. The garden was better when she was there. So was I.
As is true for most things, I did not know how I depended upon her energy until Nita was slowed by illness, walking with a cane, resting often as she made her way through the garden. It was difficult, to say the least, to lug a camera or to aim a lens with precision. But Nita being Nita, it was not impossible. There were fewer photographs, but they were no less the essence of the day. She wanted to come, even then. She stayed for a good long while, even then. There really isn’t a word for how happy I was and am about that. Although she lived through much hardship, she never flinched, never sought solace. To her, it wasn’t about her.
Nita will not be bringing her grandchildren here anymore. I think it will be okay; it may already be. The grandchildren still come, now with Mikel and their parents, quite the boisterous crowd, laughing and running and making me feel a part of their loving clan, Nita’s legacy. They are special all on their own, bringing me that great big old Diet Cherry Limeade, Extra Stems, because that is what she would want them to do, keeping another aspect of the tradition alive. Jennifer and Kristen, Nita’s daughters, take pictures and add them to their mom’s album, “Susan’s Garden.” Jennifer’s husband, Morgan, grills me so no mistakes are made at home. Mikel shows me pictures of his plants and we all talk about pests and soil and mulch. So it is thanks to the garden that my personal loss was only of Nita, a mighty loss indeed, but not of all she brought with her as well.
And Nita is still here. It isn’t just that I feel her presence from all the hours spent here together, every nook and cranny photo-graphed in every possible stage, reminding me that we shared so many stages of our lives with each other. I take a lot of pictures now and they are better. I hear her voice saying, “I don’t understand people who don’t turn the camera to frame a vertical picture,” never admitting that I was her primary addressee. And I realize she was teaching me photography in the garden, just as I taught her gardening there, her own touch subtle, mine like a sledgehammer. I’ll never be Nita, but I love loving what she loved just as she loved what I love. Yin and yang.
Nita is still here. All I have to do is observe and believe, just as she did every day, which, I admit, is easier done while sipping a special delivery Diet Cherry Limeade. Extra Stems. ❖