Hot August Melancholy

Hot August days invite a certain melancholy. As July comes to a close, an ancient grief rises to the surface and the more I swat it away, the more it demands my time. My nine-year-old self rises to the surface and reminds me of my terrible loss: the death of my father on an oppressively hot, early August day.

Dad was a horticulturist by trade, but his love of gardening came home with him as well. He built our Ontario garden from scratch, changing a mound of dirt into what felt like paradise.

Daddy's Easel

Daddy’s easel, hung on the wall of my crafting area. Photos of his model of the Golden Hind, Dad with a dog on someone’s porch, the flower shop he once owned with my Mum in Seaforth, Canada

If he were with me today, I would place my hand in his and we would walk through my garden together.

bee on chocolate mint

A bee gathers pollen from the chocolate mint in bloom

I once captured bees in a jar to show my dad I was brave. He explained in his kind way why I should set them free. They’re good for the garden he said. I was six at the time but for some reason that memory remains sharp and clear. Perhaps when memories are scarce, we hang on to what we can.

bee on chocolate mint flower

A bee travels the garden

We had a shorter growing season in Canada, but Dad was able grow tomatoes each summer. What fun we had harvesting the fruit and bringing it through the back door for our lunch.

curb garden tomatoes

Three green tomatoes, coming along nicely in the curb garden

tomato plant flowers

Tomato plant in bloom

Dad didn’t grow pumpkins in our Ontario garden. It would be especially fun to show off my beautiful specimen and to smile about the squirrels that most likely planted them.

tree rat with birdseed

A tree rat helps himself to some bird food late one night

Dad loved all animals, once rescuing a mouse from a group of boys on the street in his home town of Oldham, England. I too rescue rats and mice and though most people cringe, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Mouse curb garden

Mouse surveying the curb garden

Daddy would surely get a kick out of a different kind of mouse: Mouse the Cat. Mouse is a rescue too, in his own way.

I descended from a long line of people who rescue strays. It’s a wonderful lineage.

These hot days will pass and my mood will lift, but for now I’m making room for that ancient loss and grief.

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Gathering Losses

nicole meredith the art map sweet peas

Original Watercolor by Nicole Meredith

Grief is a strange companion. You go about your days, carrying on with life’s mundane tasks, yet the undercurrent of loss is ever-present.

In late December, Katherine who blogged at Pillows A-La-Mode lost her battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Everyone liked Katherine. She blogged about sewing, refashion and paper crafts but it was her warmth and spirit that kept you coming back. I started following her  in my early blogging days and always looked forward to the conversation. In 2012, her daughter-in-law, Shannon, secretly contacted many of us and asked us to take part in a “card shower”. Fellow bloggers sent cards from around the world, unbeknownst to Katherine, and we all held our collective breath till she learned of the surprise. She posted a photo of all of the cards displayed on her mantel with these words:

I can’t thank Shannon enough for this incredibly thoughtful gesture, and I can’t thank YOU enough for being my wonderful friends and encouragers.  As this card that Shannon made for me says, “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  New Year blessings to all of you, with love from Pillows A-La-Mode. ♥

You can read the full post here. Katherine let us know she was ill and that she would be taking a break from the blogging world while she sought treatment for her cancer. My heart skipped a beat when her post appeared in my feed. It was a shock realizing that her husband David authored the post to let us know of her passing. What a brave man.

I didn’t know Katherine in person, but those of you who blog know that it doesn’t matter one wit. She was here and then she wasn’t, and I feel saddened by her loss.

That same week I learned that Nicole Meredith’s rapid decline led her to take her own life. For twenty years Nicole struggled with a complex set of health issues related to her environment. At one point she was so ill that she had to sleep outdoors in a tent, unable to tolerate electricity. Frail and exhausted, she finally found treatment at a clinic in Texas. After months of therapy, she was finally feeling better. She was able to paint once again, though she never ventured far from poetry. Nicole’s work appears in a number of poetry journals, with many gathered together in a chapbook entitled Thanksgiving for a Hungry Ghost.

Within three months of moving to a new home, the illness returned with a vengeance. Jason drove from Washington to Texas seeking treatment from the same clinic, but Nicole continued to decline.  She quietly took her own life, leaving family and friends and all that knew her devastated. She was only 40.

We shared our last correspondence in July. She wrote:

I’m so emotional reading your email that J just forwarded me. Thank you! The lovely supportive words, I have to say, hold as much currency as your amazing gift. Too much. But your heart is felt on many levels and so gratefully received, Alys!

Now what will set life straight once and for all (hoho!) is if you perchance have ANY interest in me blending you up a custom oil based perfume? No pressure, but it would be a most welcome undertaking to get to focus on a project for a fellow “flower person!” Especially now…

I can certainly take no for an answer, but if there’s a scent-shaped desire: boom, I’m here to fill at least that!

Either way, thank you again–so much–for your sincerity and kindness. Nicole

That’s who she was. When her health improved, she continued to shine light on others with her art, her poetry, the essential oils and her gift with words. She made you feel like *you* were the special one.

Following is an excerpt from one of Nicole Meredith’s poems:

Playing the Tin Whistle

You ask me again when I will recover.
Instead I describe
how I taught myself to trill
so the note hooks upward
then drunkenly swoons,
then rights itself and holds steady.
All I can promise is that it is truly a lovely, haunting effect.

Nicole Meredith (Reinart) Legacy.com

Goodby My Friends, by David Scraper at Pillows A-La-Mode

GardeningNirvana: Sweet Peas: Art, Friendship and Second Chances

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Eric Milner: Birthday Remembrances at 101

dad in India

Eric Milner, center

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:

Sir,

“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.

Darjeeling album

Photos from Daddy’s time in India

planting tea in India

Planting young tea, photo by Eric Milner

tea growing in India

Tea Grows in India, 1939, photo by Eric Milner

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.

 

 

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Stress and a Pair of Garden Shears

curb garden

Curb garden in need of some TLC

It’s been a stressful week. When your heart is open, it acts a bit like a sponge. The sadness of others laps at my soul.

The news isn’t mine to share, and sharing it won’t change it anyway. Instead, I donned my garden gloves, picked up a pair of garden shears and got busy. In my world, pruning is therapeutic.

Cutting away at dead growth or removing crossed or brittle branches helps shape the plant and ready it for fall. I worked my way through the curb garden, the triangle garden, the side garden and one of the areas in front of our sickly tree.

As I reached into the soil to plant additional bulbs, I unearthed several narcissus from last year. I tucked them back in for the winter, and made new holes a few spaces over. I like imagining the bulbs resting under ground, storing energy till they make their early spring debut.

chocolate mint

Chocolate mint taking a shortcut

Chocolate mint has been running amok, sending shoots out of the bottom of the planter box. I cut back what I could, then stretched the shoots over the top of the box and pruned them clear of the gravel. That incredible scent tickled my senses as I ran my hands through the leaves.

Two unidentified plants are now a meter tall. I don’t know what they are but they’ve made it this far so they get to stay. Novelty is good, even it they do look a bit out-of-place.

mystery plants

Two mystery plants, one meter tall

I pruned away the diseased branches of our Magnolia. It’s possible I went too far this time, but after hours spent trying to defeat Magnolia scale, drastic measures were due.I removed branches from the shrubs below the tree, taming them back to the walkway’s edge. The last of the summer annuals were next. Piles grew in corners here and there. I filled the wheelbarrow, made another pile on a small tarp and brought order to the garden. My back ached as it grew harder and harder to stand up. I worked some more.

garden surprise

A lovely garden surprise

By day’s end, I’d logged four hours in the garden. I pruned, pulled, chopped, raked, and swept.  I planted spring bulbs and dressed the side yard with a thick layer of mulch. Exhausted, I finally called it a day. I packed up my tools, washed away the day’s dirt and took my boys out for a quiet dinner.

Some days you tend a garden; some days the garden tends you.

Sentimental Thrifting: Kicking Shame to the Curb

Thrift store shopping is all the rage. Clothing and household goods get a second life, proceeds from purchases usually benefit a non-profit, and for those who can’t afford new clothes for themselves or their family, they’re a boon.They’re also an excellent place to shop for Halloween.

In the year leading up to my father’s death, most of our purchases came from a thrift store. After Dad died and Mom had three young girls to raise, our clothes and shoes came from the local St. Vincent de Paul. We enjoyed going there and the kind treatment by the woman who volunteered for the store.

We didn’t own a car, and within a few weeks of our dad dying, mom loaded us girls with arms of his clothing, and we walked to the store to donate them. I’ll never forget the pain of that day. When we walked in the door, she asked us how our dad was.  I couldn’t possibly say ‘he died’ so instead I said “he’s fine” and fled to the back of the store as the tears welled up yet again. I turned ten a few months later.

In my early teens, I was more aware of the scarcity around us. That’s when the shame set in. We lived in affluent Millbrae, but on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. Girls would ask if my dress was new and I never knew how to respond. It wasn’t new of course, just new to me. I felt trapped between telling the truth and my personal shame. The last time I shopped at that local thrift, I went in to find a pair of overalls. They were all the rage in the day, so I hoped to find a pair of my own.

When I walked out of the store, a school bus drove by and I imagined everyone on that bus looking at me with judgment. I jumped back into the shop, my heart pounding and waited for the bus to pass.

I was in college before I mustered the courage to enter a thrift store again. I found several treasures for a few dollars, and brought them home to decorate my room. The problem, though, was that smell.  It’s a mix of stale fabrics, moth balls and the collective journey of donated items.  It’s also the smell of loss and shame and grief.

It’s wonderful to have worked through so much of those feelings as I continue a path of healing. I’m able to embrace the thrift store experience once again. Not only is it trendy to recycle fashion, it’s practical, economical and green. Items get a second life.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been haunting local thrift stores in search of the perfect find. Once I get past the smell, those thrift stores no longer haunt me.

No-Candy Countdown:

Throughout October, I’m keeping track of the candy I **don’t** eat.I’m feeling great, losing weight and enjoying the sense of control I’ve gained over my extra-curricular eating.I’m rewarding myself with a happy face stamp. It’s fun and a way to stay self-aware.

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Under-the-sea Costume Update:

I had all kinds of fun last Friday, and again over the weekend. I planned out the rest of the details for my costume, draping and pinning as I went along. I ran out of safety pins, so had a few ‘tender’ moments getting the dress on and off. I picked up a bag of pins on Sunday.

under the sea draping collage

Thrift store finds: Purple dress, two sections of fabric and a pair of unique earrings

I cut the smaller of the two pieces of fabric in half, then draped it over the shoulder of the dress to create a short-sleeved top. I’m using the longer length of fabric for a cape. I found a unique pair of earrings for two dollars. I removed the earring and used the rest as faux fasteners for the cape.

Mike’s getting into the spirit of  dressing up this year and he’s having fun. We went back to Savers and bought a pant suit, soon to be converted into his cape. The dark green and swirly pattern are perfect. The thrift store pricing fit the bill too. Don’t worry, it will be manly when I’m done with it, with zero trace of this suit.

under the sea cape material

Thrift store finds: Green and Gold chiffon pantsuit

Pumpkins on Parade:

Will of Marking Our Territory had the following to say about this year’s crop:

Halloween beats out all but two holiday for parties? I’m seriously impressed. (Side note: the 3/4 pumpkin in the lower left corner is my favorite – it’s got character)

Will has wonderful character so he should know.

three quarters pumpkin

3/4 Pumpkin

Please keep sharing your ideas for pumpkin dress up.

Loving and Losing Beijing

It’s been a surreal week of highs and lows. My oldest son turned 17 on Wednesday. The same day Beijing stopped eating. She moved from spot to spot, unresponsive to any attention we paid. I was so afraid she would die on his birthday, but she survived the night. My husband hoped that it was only an infection, and that a trip to the vet could heal her. She’s been on four medications for a year treating her heart and thyroid, but she was happy, ravenous, cantankerous…in short, her wonderful self.

Alas, the news wasn’t good. Her body is shutting down, and they’ve added probable cancer to the list. I’m going to see her now, and will be there with her as she eases out of this world. My youngest son graduates 8th grade in a few hours. I’m hoping to keep this news at bay till then.

Thank you for gracing our lives, Beijing.

Beijing, October 2010

Sunning herself in the garden bed

mike and Beijing

Her favorite place in the house

beijing on the swing

Keeping me company on the garden swing

Beijing

The ‘Look”

Beijing on the sill

A favorite spot

Beijing

Please hold all my calls.

mac with beijing

In the arms of my youngest son

Summer Winds Nursery Fire

Summer Winds, a local nursery in the Almaden area of San Jose, burned to the ground late last night. I’m stunned.  The cause is under investigation, but they think it was an accident.  Summer Winds, formerly Woolworth Garden Center, has been there for 40 years.

Nurseries, I fear, are a dying breed.  Many of the big box stores have garden centers, but it’s not the same as a nursery dedicated to all things plants.  The Summer Winds gift shop was also a lot of fun.  I especially enjoyed browsing there around the holidays.  The nursery sold a wide selection of decorative pots, along with annuals, vegetables and garden fountains.  In May of this year, I was shopping at Summer Winds when a hummingbird darted into the store.  Oblivious to me and a handful of employees, she landed on a decorative arbor.  She was busy building a nest right in the middle of the store!  I couldn’t get my camera phone out fast enough to capture her flight, but I did take a picture of the nest.

Hummingbird Nest at Summer Winds Nursery

Hummingbird Nest at Summer Winds Nursery, May 15, 2012

Summer is at an end, so I’m taking comfort in the fact that the nest would be empty by now.  She may have reconsidered the location in the first place.  With all that activity she probably decided to nest elsewhere.

The after-hours fire started around midnight with no reported injuries.  Although the fire department was quickly on the scene, they took the unusual step of letting the fire burn itself out.  Knowing the store was full of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they wanted to avoid ground water contamination of nearby Guadalupe River.

It’s a sad day for gardeners in the Valley.  I hope they rebuild.
Details of the fire in the Mercury News.