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…