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Category: storybook garden

rose-petaled dreams

like all the dreamy-eyed notions in my life, i trace it back to tasha tudor’s enchanted pages in “the secret garden,” or to mrs. gutting’s greenhouse, the one where once upon a sticky cincinnati afternoon, she served me orange juice from a sweaty glass pitcher and pepperidge farm chessman cookies, all amid her potted red geraniums.

every some-day dreamer, when but a child, should be handed two such essentials: a copy of “the secret garden,” tied up in satin bow. and a someone who’s a dash of magic, a someone from another time. a someone who wears broad-brimmed hats and skirts to hide her knobby knees. a someone who leaps from an overstuffed arm chair to the bookshelves groaning behind her, to pull just the tome, and turn to just the page, running her calloused, garden-stained index finger down the lines of type, until she comes to just the words she will now recite aloud.

oh, wait, i’ve taken off on my reverie but not told you what it is i’ve dreamed of all my whole life long.

why, it’s rambling roses. roses that climb and twirl and dip and reach each morning for the moon. roses that make a nesting place for blue birds and persimmon-bellied robins. roses to get lost in. roses with names that charm me, names like mrs. dudley cross, prosperity, and lady waterlow.

as long as i’ve been a girl with curls, and storybook dreams tucked deep inside, i’ve been a girl who has plotted the picture frames of my life.

i’ve imagined gray shingled cottages, worn from salt and sea winds. i’ve pictured a kitchen plot, a potager as it’s so finely called, just outside my kitchen door, where thyme and sweet peas ramble. i’ve pictured a cherry tree, where bluebirds sing. and of course a garden path, a winding one, a bluestone one, that curls and carries me from cottage garden in the front to tucked-away whispery spot beyond.

and all along the way on that path, climbing up and over and around, there are roses by the dozens. old roses. roses of a certain vintage. antique roses, even. when it comes to roses, age counts. no new-fangled hybrids, bred to dash disease, bloom without perfume, not for me, no thanks.

i take my roses rambly, unkempt, with a mind of their own.

(i suppose one might find parallels between old grower and old growth there, but we’ll move right along rather than get locked in that floribunda-psychoanalysis.)

anyway, it’s been a long time coming, this faint attempt at the rose-petaled existence of which i’ve ever dreamed. problem is (or at least a portion of the problem), i seem to have propensity for picking houses with old trees, big trees. and one thing a rose will not have, thank you, is shadow. roses love the limelight, the sunlight, the basking on the beach that is a rose’s bed.

i’ve got one or three who don’t seem to have read that rule book. they grow in shade anyway. climb up the screen of the summer porch. poke their hot-pink heads out from under the arbor vitae branches, where at best it’s dappled light just before the sun drops low. oh, they’re stubborn ones. grow and bloom despite it all.

but out front, along the picket fence–the white picket fence, as if i need to point that out, don’t they come in just one hue?–i’ve tucked in a few–okay, six–roses that i’m counting on to do their rosy bramble.

i want roses like the ones i once passed for miles, on the stone walls that meander across block island, that step-back-in-time a ferry ride away from that wisp of a state, rhode island, where salt air and centuries have faded the roses’ petals to a tissue-paper pink i’ll not forget. nor will time erase one other snapshot in my head: the way they paid no mind to passing years. they just kept rambling, climbing, mounding, blooming. giving forth their poetry to all who stopped to notice.

i want roses that don’t stand tall. i want them loopy, bent and making way for bloom in all the oddest places.
i want roses that make me laugh, so determined are their gnarly branches, so unwilling to succumb to bricks or fence post, so intent on reaching sky. sticking necks out. making bold proclamation: i am rose, and i am punctuating the summer’s day with all the colors in my paintbox.

i want roses that make me drop to my knees, so filled with sacred message, with wisdom, that i can’t not walk past without a moment’s veneration, a moment’s study. soaking up the truth, the lesson, that the wily breath-taking beauty holds for me.

have you ever seen a rose that looks as if someone pulled out a watercolor brush, and dabbed a rim of lipstick red just along the petal’s edge? and how the throat casts sunshine glow, and the petals are the color of buttermilk, or an antique hanky, one you found in the drawer when your grandma died, and you were gathering up a few small things to carry home, to keep beside you, so on any given monday you might stumble upon them, and feel her there beside you, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the laundry room?

anyway, my old and not-so-old roses have been at work this week, while i’ve been working too. i’d not realized their time had come. but then i tiptoed out to get the newspaper, down at the curb, where the nice man tosses it at dawn, the nearly obsolete man, the last one, perhaps, to toss the curled-up paper on the reader’s curb.

i had just turned from scooping up the papers (we double our obsolescence, and subscribe to two), and i couldn’t help but be bowled over by the dots of pink and lipstick, the blush of butter running into dab of peach, the puckered lips that are a rose about to bloom.

there, rambling, climbing, reaching for the stars and moon and morning sun, were the roses i’d been waiting for nearly all my days and years.

it appears they’ve gotten on without me, just the way i take my roses. but now that i see their nodding gentle heads, their bashful show of perseverance, i feel obliged to tend to them today. to head out with tray of drinks for all. to offer talcum powder baths if that might be the thing that cures their holey leaves, as i do notice some bug is feasting on them too. has gotten to them first, while i carried on at my keyboard.

at long last, it’s that stretch of june where the roses bloom, take centerstage. for years and years, they’ve been off in the wings in all my dreams. and, as if by magic, with not nearly enough sunshine or attention, they’ve tiptoed in, to a place where i can’t miss their star turn. nor be too grateful for their willingness to grace me, ever after.

do you have old roses, old anything, that set you spiraling in reverie? a patch of magic in your yard that makes you swoon? did you grow up dreaming of a certain sort of garden path? what sparked your dreams? who sparked your dreams? did you have a mrs. gutting (pronounced good-ing, which, oh, she was, a librarian and gardener who lived in a real-life castle, one with secret stairs and turrets, one with lower gardens, and up the hill, the greenhouse tucked back behind the kitchen, where the pepperidge farm cookies never seemed to end)? (pssst, a hint to my mama, perhaps you’ll write to us of your mrs. gutting memories, you who were drawn to her as if water to a cactus, you who found your own brand of magic not in your most upholstered house, but across the way, in the castle where books and poetry and garden beds ruled the day….)
i’ll leave it there. happy blessed june, nearly summer solstice, nearly my firstborn’s 18th birthday. nearly father’s day. they do pack it in in june, now don’t they?

my not-so-secret garden

i’ve been under the spell, i do believe, since that long-ago sunday when i should have been in church. but instead, i rubbed the thermometer on my bedsheets, allowed the friction there to be my accomplice in the charade of sunday-morning fever.

now that the statute of limitation’s surely well expired, i can confess my sin at last: i’d feigned the fever so i could stay in bed with the book that stole forever my heart, (and, apparently, my soul) and, yes, my whole imagination.
twas then and now, frances hodgson burnett’s “the secret garden,” with pen and ink and watercolors by my enchantress, tasha tudor.

twas the book that took me down the sinner’s path, and opened up a lifetime’s looking for, believing in, the dappled path to paradise.

oh, who could go to church, sit stiff in wooden pews, when instead i might tiptoe along behind orphaned mary lennox as, at last, the robin redbreast showed her the long-lost key to the long-locked little door that opened into the long-still garden, where once upon a time heartbreak happened and the old once-beautiful garden was left to die of sorrow.

indeed, instead of whispering my morning prayers, my heart leapt up and out of me, traveled off to english countryside. was there inside the garden walls, where ivy hung, “a loose and swinging curtain.” peeking through the “fairy-like gray arches” of the climbing roses, tangled over trees in slumber, swinging down in “long tendrils which made light swaying curtains.”

so it says on pages 92 to 96, where i barely breathed the first time through, nor just now as i read again the words that birthed in me a life’s-long enchantment with secret nooks and crannies where fairies dart from leaf to leaf, and robins lay their sticks, their curls of birchbark, where sky-blue eggs are laid, are hatched, where wee small beaks just barely make a chirp when mama comes with worm.

oh, i am enchanted, yes, by the secret garden.

and just beyond my kitchen door, where a summer ago and long before, was gnarly bush and weeds that grabbed you by the knee, there seems to have sprouted a patch as enchanted as any i have ever known.

i cannot keep myself from there, where fronds of fern tickle me on the shin, and hydrangea drapes before my nose. i’ve a curly-barked maple that is home, already, to the robin and the red bird.

just this christmas past, i discovered tucked between a weeping hemlock and that maple a bird-house bench, one built for me by my beloved friend, jim the builder, and left one afternoon before a giant snow blew in. i had no clue it was there, till two days later, when, out shoveling before the dawn, i caught a glint of early-morning sunlight shining off the copper-topped birdhouse peak. and there, with snow cascading down, i wept. overtaken by the tiptoeing-in of the humble builder who had faith i’d find his gift and hadn’t thought to pester me, inquire, had i found it, had i found it?

ever since, it’s my preferred spot for taking mugs of steamy morning coffee. or mid-day lemon waters. or sips of wine, as sun’s long last rays bid the garden, “good day.”

or, if i can’t bear the few-steps walk to the bench, i might plop my bottom on the blue-stone stoop, just beyond the kitchen door, just down from where the basil and the thyme and the flat-leaf parsley grow in the wooden box along the windowsill. sitting there, i am eyeball-to-eyeball with the butterflies that land in the unnamed bush, or atop the country mailbox that holds my garden gloves and clippers.

and, best of all, my meandering walk, with blooms of creamy white and fronds and leaves of grayish-green and silver-green and almost lime (who knew how many shades of green there are?), at last has the proper entrance i have dreamed about, well, forever and ever.

there is now, at the south end of my not-so-secret garden, a perfect arch, with arbors on the side, and bentwood top, where you might look up and watch the clouds, the sun, the stars, play peek-a-boo.

not yet do the roses ramble up.

but they will.

old roses, dusty pink, tissue-paper vintage roses. the ones from storybooks and block island, that faraway place a ferry’s ride from rhode island’s coast where winding lanes are lined with old stone walls and miles of rather ancient roses have been forever rinsed by sea-salt breezes, so the color’s nearly drained, and just a whisper’s left of palest oyster pink.

it is the place i’m drawn to morning, noon and dark at night. i’ve been known to stand there watching moonbeams on the mopheads of hydrangea. i tiptoe out before the dawn, just to be alone, to absorb the misty earth in morning prayer. i dart in and out all day, watch the light play shadow games.

we each, every one of us, need a secret sacred place to hope and dream and cast our prayers on passing breeze.

those of us who scatter seeds of holiness, who tuck them in the loamy mounds of garden, we are blessed with bursting forth of bulb and branch. we endure the heartache of the dying stalk, the one we cannot resurrect, not with all the love and faith we know how to muster.

there are lessons to be taught from every garden and the paths that meander through.

and, oh, to be among the ones who understand the volumes of truth nestled there among the trailing vines, the fairy-like arches and the light swaying curtains that come in many shades of green.

oh, to be grown up and, after all these years, still hold dear the secrets of the garden. even when it’s not so secret, after all.

bless you, holy garden.

where is your secret sacred place? the plane of pillows by your window? the armchair that wraps around you? the middle step on your front stairs? or perhaps you too have a slice of enchantment that grows just beyond your kitchen door, or way out back where no one knows you hide?

we are deep in festivity here at this old house, with birthday on top of birthday, a whole pile-up of cakes and candles, and digits clicking ever forward. today’s the one that belongs to the father of my boys; two days from now, my little one turns nine. just day before last, my most beloved brother david blew out candles right alongside the nation’s president. and two days before that my papa would have been 82. thirty years ago he died. be still, my ever-broken heart…..now healed enough to love and laugh beyond my wildest dreams…

storybook gardener

since the day i moved here, five years ago now, the storybook cottage up above has held me in its spell. oh, i don’t live beneath its shingled roof, don’t know my way from room to room, have never even turned the front-door knob.

i only wander by, and cast my wishes in its woodland garden, where trillium, in spring, bumps up against the jacob’s ladder. where snowdrops are the first to come when winter will not take its graceful leave. and where, in autumn, tall grasses swish, the wind-borne lullabye before the garden slumbers.

i wink sometimes at raggedy ann, peeking out from up beneath the turret’s peak. see her? just a wisp of her, in the upper eastern window where she bathes, each morning, in the dawn’s first-light, as rosy-fingered sky reaches up and over the great blue lake just blocks away?

the raggedy one looks down on a garden as magic as any i have ever known, save maybe for “the secret garden,” frances hodgson burnett’s secret one, of course, which by page 42 of that sinful book (i once pretended to have a fever so i could stay home from church to read on and on) was the first i fell head-over-heels in love with, imagined myself inside of, tiptoeing near the climbing roses, curling up on stony bench, listening for the robin who’d led the orphan mary to the garden’s long-lost key and then, at last, to the ivy-covered door that hadn’t been unlocked in years and years.

there is for me something about a garden, a particular sort of mind-of-its-own garden, not one all clipped and shorn and pedicured, but one that rambles, grows this way and that, that sets me to pretending, spinning yarns to match the garden’s swift enchantment.

a little more than a year and a half ago, the storybook garden that belongs to the storybook cottage that just might belong to raggedy ann, gripped me, shot me through and through with what i feared was a most unhappy ending.
before i tell you what unfolded just the other day, i’ve pasted here the passage i once told. read along, then meet me at the story’s end, so i can fill you in on what we’ll call the epilogue.

the story just below, once was published in the chicago tribune. but i wrote it right here at my old pine desk, before i had a kitchen table where i could share my stories.

here’s what now becomes the prologue, printed first in october of 2006:

I am haunted these days by a fairy tale garden that I fear has lost its gardener.

There is, not far from my house, an enchanted little garden and a storybook house to go with it. The first time I eyed it, I nearly drove up the curb. It is all trellis and turret, and delightfully low to the ground, as if curled in a humble embrace with the growing things that spring all around. It is a house that whispers, not shouts.

At the head of a stepping-stone path there’s a front door an elf might wander through, and all around there are great patches of magic, grasses and flowering vines, birdhouses by the dozens, a place lovingly tended by someone completely in tune with the rhythms of wonder and the unfolding of time, season by season.

A Raggedy Ann, toddler size, sits up in the window of one the turrets, peeking out, keeping an eye on all. More than once, I swore she winked at me. The place, I’m telling you, is bewitching.

To drive by, or to wander by, is to slow the staccato of my every day. It is to breathe in and be reminded that lovingly tending the earth reaps wheelbarrows full of heaven.

The other day, though, the staccato picked up as I was stopped at the stop sign across from the storybook house. I saw streams of finely dressed folk pouring down the sidewalk, into the elfin front door, in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. This isn’t a holiday, I thought. But then a synapse connected: Those fine clothes were funeral clothes. Oh my goodness, something in the storybook was amiss.

And then, sure as could be, the next morning, flanking both sides of the garden walk, standing sentry for any passerby, were two giant funeral wreaths, one a sumptuous circle of red roses, the other a sheaf of blood-red gladioli.

I am haunted now by the storybook house, and its autumnal garden. Haunted because I am afraid the woman who loved there might be no longer.

Sad thing is, I never met her. Only saw her as a constant stooped figure, bent over her trillium and her scilla in the spring, deadheading her jonquils, cutting back and transplanting through the summer, raking and staking well past the first frost of winter.

I can barely breathe now when I drive by, wondering, worrying. What happens to a garden when a gardener dies? Who will feed the birds that have called her little patch home for decades and decades?

For now, Raggedy Ann keeps an eye on the place. I won’t be able to bear it if she, too, slips away some day when I drive by.

I mourn for the woman who tended the earth with all her heart. I mourn for the trillium and the jonquil and the clematis that will no longer be cajoled and tucked back and talked to, as I often saw her, lips moving as she moved from this to that growing thing. I mourn for all of us who might not have the storybook garden to calm us in the midst of our modern-day madness.

It is a wicked thing when a garden and its gardener do not live happily ever after.

–end of tribune story–

not long after the story ran, i found an email in my tribune mail box. just a few sentences in, my heart caught in my throat. it was an email from the storybook gardener herself.

she’d been stopped, she said, as she turned the sunday pages, drawn in by the drawing of a raggedy ann that ran beside my story, running down two columns. she started to read, and soon knew that this mysterious writer was writing of her very own garden.

she’d not died, she wrote me. but her dear, beloved husband had. suddenly. achingly. without a warning.

and all the bustle i’d come up upon, and the funeral wreaths standing guard by the front door, were indeed for someone loved, now lost.

the garden and the gardener were, oh, yes, deep in mourning. but the words i’d written had not rattled her, so much as soothed her, she wrote. to know that her garden brought so much magic to even one odd passerby.

i should stop by, she wrote. i should visit her in her storybook garden, or inside the magic cottage she now shared with only one limp ragdoll.

for 20 months almost, i’ve kept an eye out. i’ve knocked on that elfin door. i’ve spied evidence of her being there, a just-dropped trowel, a pile of leaves. but not once did i ever see the magic gardener herself.

until just the other dappled afternoon. when the sun played peek-a-boo through her maple leaves, and i saw her slight bent frame, hard at work.

i leapt from my car, i called her name. i tiptoed through her ferny thicket, felt my heart pound hard against my chest. i told her who i was, reminded her that i’d once written of her garden.

she needn’t be reminded. she’d waited, she said, all these months. had wondered why i’d never come.

oh, but i have, i said, a little bashful, a little sad that i’d not maybe tried harder. hadn’t thought to drop a basket or a note, tucked it by the door.

somehow, though, more words–scribbled, folded, left behind–didn’t feel enough, didn’t feel the thing to do. i’d been inclined to meet this soul in person; to know the hands, the eyes, the heart, that made this place call out to me.

here, sit, she said, patting her mud-rubbed palm on just the moss-laced stony bench you’d expect sprouting from her woodland trails.

we talked for the better part of an hour. she offered me anything she grows, to divide and migrate the few blocks south, to my still-getting-off-the-ground patch of earth.

uncannily, time and time again as we talked of achy hips and sudden deaths and how her garden grew, i felt as if i’d known her for a long long while. found myself delighted through and through by just how much our roots, our tales, entwined.

maybe, though, that’s what happens when you’ve imagined yourself in someone’s garden. thought about sipping tea on chilly afternoons, tucked behind her stained-glass kitchen windows.

or maybe, it’s simply magic, long seeded in the hearts of those who share a fondness for a sparrow’s nest tucked under eaves, and ragdolls who nap away the day up in attic windows.

as shadows grew, and i knew my stay might be getting in the way of some dear plant’s undivided attention, i couldn’t help but think how it was that her undying grief had brought us so round-aboutly together, sitting here, side-by-side, in her most enchanted garden.

and how this beauty all around us grew, despite the dappled darkness.

kindred souls discovered where the lilac bloomed, and mayapples nodded in the filtered sunlight.

the story, once imagined, had no happy ending.

but the story, real, i now knew, was like so very much of life: it is shadowed, yes, but only just in spots.

and, here and there and everywhere, new life is pulsing; pushing, bulging, shouldering the clumps of dirt, straining to break through the crusty-shell of earth.

no longer merely make-believe, the storybook gardener and the writer begin that time-worn art of cultivating friendship. drawn together oddly, they carry on as if their story’s meant to be.

which, just maybe, it truly was.

have you made a friend thanks to a garden? or some odd-unfolding circumstance? have you some inkling there’s someone not far from where you live, who just might be your long-lost soulmate, not yet discovered? do tell…