The Garden Remembers

Staying connected to bygone loved ones.

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This morning I caught my breath when I found new shoots breaking through the soil on a St. John’s Wort I’d brought home from Oregon several weeks ago. I thought it had died. Hypericum calycinum is not a difficult plant, nor as rare as the exotic nursery finds that had shared its cramped suitcase on my flight home. But as with many plants in our lives as gardeners, its origin gives it a special place in my affections.

In a modest little garden in Oregon’s Bandon-by-the-Sea, this plant had strongarmed its way through beds and pots, stopping short only in the face of concrete steps and walkways. The garden was that of my much-loved godmother—my Auntie Derith—who had passed away days before my visit. With my daughter, Emma, and Ollie, a friend and caregiver of my aunt, I wrestled with the St. John’s Wort for a couple hours, only to impulsively throw a few hacked cuttings in a bag as we left the house for the last time.

It may be trite, but my garden connects me to those people every day.

We had been tidying the garden, the way one does when one doesn’t quite know what else to do in the face of grief. My aunt may or may not have approved, as she took great joy in the wildness of her yard. My Aunt Derith proudly went by the title of “Miss” for all of the 89 years she spent on this Earth—the quintessential English spinster with a lively sense of humor and a sharp tongue when vexed. She was frugal to the point of absurdity and kept a container under the faucet to catch every spare drop of water for later use. Staying with her as an over-bathed American teenager was a test of both our temperaments, and lectures were severe and terrifying.

But she was the only woman I have ever known who loved her birthdays—to such an extent that in her later years she began to celebrate her half-birthdays, “In case I don’t make it to my next one, my dear!” At 87, she began celebrating her three-quarters-birthdays, and succeeded in shaming me for dreading my own, as I was more than forty years her junior.

During World War II, she had driven trucks in Italy, later emigrating to America on an ocean liner, wearing a headscarf against the wind, which, thanks to the kindness of Ollie, now belongs to me. And after many years in San Francisco (on whose famous hills she taught me to drive a stick shift), she moved to Bandon and began a new life in her early sixties—a testament to our power as human beings to take charge of our lives and live with purpose, no matter what age.

It is a function of life that we will experience greater loss as we grow older. I have certainly proven the rule this year, with too many loved ones lost—in turns grieving and being grateful that I have not been faced with such loss earlier in my life. And it may be trite, and too oft cited by garden writers, but my garden connects me to those people every day: Aunt Derith’s hypericum; my friend Mary Ann’s golden privet; a precious aloe from Phil’s garden in California; the choice to line walkways with grasses á la Jeanne. How thankful I am to have these reminders of people who have shared their lives with me and made my life richer.

St. John’s Wort is used for the cure of melancholy and depression, and certainly on this quiet, overcast morning, the sight of these new shoots has made me smile and allowed me to write these words. No doubt I will be tearing out fistfuls of this aggressive spreader in a few years, smirking in the irony of it all and worrying that it will take over my garden. But then, worry is pointless, as Auntie Derith often reminded me by reciting this, her favorite saying:

“In this life, there are only two things to worry about: Either you are healthy or you are sick. If you are healthy, then there is nothing to worry about. But if you are sick, then there are only two things to worry about: Either you will get well or you will die. If you get well, then there is nothing to worry about. But if you die there are only two things to worry about: Either you will go to heaven or to hell. If you go to heaven, then there is nothing to worry about. And if you to go hell, you’ll be so darn busy shaking hands with your friends you won’t have time to worry.”

It’s not the same without her snorts and giggles at the end, but the sentiment stays with me and will remind me to approach my birthday a little differently this year. And wherever we end up shaking hands and kissing cheeks in the hereafter, I look forward to it.


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