My father traversed an interesting path, one of travel, adventure and creativity. Born in England on October 6th, 1915, today would have been his 101st birthday. Daddy studied botany and horticultural science at Wimbledon Technical College. He worked as a student gardener at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London. Now you know where I got my love of gardening.
In a letter he saved dated October 1st, 1937, it says:
“Mr. E. Milner came to us on Sept. 16th 1935 as a Student Gardener. Since that time he has spent 4 months in the Fruit Department, 2 months in the Rock Garden, 8 months on general outdoor work and 10 months under glass. His experience with us has included the propagation and maintenance of stove, glasshouse and herbaceous plants, all of which we grow in considerable variety.”
So formal! After completing his courses, he moved to India to work on a tea plantation around 1937. He remained in India during the second world war serving as a translator.
In a letter dated 7th May, 1946 from the India Office, Whitehall, it says:
“Now that the time has come for your release from active military duty, I am to convey to you the thanks of the Secretary of State for India and of the Government of India for the valuable services which you have rendered to your country at a time of grave national emergency.
At the end of the emergency you will relinquish your commission, and at that time a notification will appear in the London Gazette (Supplement), granting you also the honorary rank of Captain. Meanwhile, you have permission to use that rank with effect from the date of your release.”
He returned to England in 1946 and shortly thereafter immigrated to Canada where he met and married my mother. Together they owned a pair of flower shops for a few years. My father later managed a nursery in my hometown of London, Ontario.
Lucky for me his hobbies included photography and the careful assembly of albums, like the one pictured here. I remain fascinated all these years later of his time in India and his work planting and propagating tea in the Darjeeling region. He died far too young. A smoker of pipes and unfiltered, hand-rolled cigarettes, he lost his life to cancer when I was just nine years old. He was 54.
There are so many things I would ask him if I could. What was it like to be a boy in England in the twenties? Who were his friends? What drew him to botany and landscaping? Dad’s treasured albums leave subtle clues, but each photo poses more questions. There are pictures of my namesake Aunt Alys and his parents, neither of whom I met, but pictures of others too. Who were they and why did their image make it into his photo albums? If Daddy had lived to a ripe old age, his own shared memories would be a part of our story, and perhaps most of them mundane. Instead they’re a mystery that I can’t quite solve, special moments from a life interrupted.
I feel connected to dad when I’m tending my garden or digging in the soil. He lives in my heart and at the end of my proverbial green thumb. If he were here to celebrate this birthday, I would thank him for the gift of my life, for his compassion and care and for passing on his love of the earth. I would wrap my arms around his slender frame, give him a hug, and tell him all the things we missed together.