Sunday, April 17, 2016

April colors

The start of April brings a few thrills here as the creeping phlox come into bloom on the berm that most people imagine is on my neighbor's property.  That bridge in the picture crosses a concrete drainage swale that looks like it would make a natural property line.  In truth, the line is about ten feet to the left of the left edge of this picture!

If the weather remains cool, the phlox remains in bloom into the third week of April.  It's still great as I write this blog.

Lawn grass wakes up, too, and it loves to creep under the metal edging in invade the phlox.  We are going to have a heck of a time keeping grass from overtaking the entire berm.  Some phlox will be wounded in the process.

April is also the month of weekly piles of white Priority Mail boxes that my mail carrier picks up on her mail run.  The volume of a daylily garden increases by a factor of two or three every year in a fixed amount of space.  It behooves the grower of these plants to keep the size of the clumps down to reasonable size.  The surplus is donated to various regions of the American Hemerocallis Society, which is the international daylily organization.

You can imagine the frustration of post office customers who found themselves behind me in line back in the days before I learned about "Click 'n' Ship."

Orange is one of the colors of April, orange buckets for holding the incoming daylilies in water until I get a chance to plant them.  As long as you change the water when it starts to look cloudy, you can hold daylilies in water for weeks if you have to.

Our car parking area outside the garage resembles a nursery in April.  Karen and I go out several times a week to see what's available at our favorite nurseries.  Karen is building as much of a lilac collection as the property can take.  No argument from me on that score!  We also found a bright lime yellow variety of Ninebark to punctuate a line of shrubs along the sides of the driveway.

Karen also favors Bleeding Hearts.  She has found several good spots for them.  The largest currently is right at the corner as a shade bed goes downhill and turns to run under a line of ash trees.

She has planted pansies in many large pots and is thinking about where the petunias will go.  Not at ground level, certainly, because the rabbits will get them.

April is the month of lush growth in the daylilies as they break out of dormancy.  I love the look of this clump of Bob Selman's VANILLA VICTORY.  The plant habit is excellent, with new fans developing on the perimeter.  The upright habit of the foliage in April makes me imagine the plant is shouting for joy.

Lucy the poodle is joyous about getting back out on the deck at breakfast and lunch time.  She's eight months old now, passing out of her first heat.  A month or two down the line, she'll be spayed and microchipped.  We are so happy to have her in the family!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Story of Frank and Naples

In the year we no longer feared "Y2K" and the collapse of world banking and missile defenses, I invented a private detective in a post to one of the email groups I belong to.  My invention was just for laughs.  Wise Guy Writing is how I think of it.  It was something that came naturally to me in high school and it has stayed with me.

I gave him a name, Frank Sechs, and some of my actual and imagined history, and I gave him a lady friend named Naples LaTour.  Naples was invented from a girl I dated in college and another girl who inspired an all-consuming infatuation from the moment I first saw her.  I didn't know her name.  We shared one class one year.  By chance, I saw her after I'd carried my secret flame for over a year and I asked her for a date.  And she said, so kindly, "I'm married."

So inventing the character of Naples allowed me to imagine all sorts of outcomes other than "I'm married."  I found that these imaginary people could generate insights as I wrote their story, and so I continued to put pieces of that story together once in a while.  Years could lapse before another installment.

I just took up interest in their story this summer, so I'm going to begin by posting the initial parts and then add new parts as I develop them over the coming months or years.

Frank and Naples

If I were a writer...

If I were a writer, I’d tell you a story in the usual order of things, beginning-middle-end, and a love would develop, fail, and either revive or kill the belief in hope for one of the main characters or you, the reader.  But I’m not a writer.  I’m a detective with no skill set, just a hunch or two and a taste for finding things out. 

Well, this story begins a while ago, but not at the beginning of it.  I was having a night out with a couple of friends at a micro brewery.  Tom Harry was winning a dart game again, playing with college kids who believed his story about never having thrown a dart before.  Naples LaTour, a woman of some repute locally, was at my side encouraging me to buy her another round.

“You’re round enough already, Baby,” was all I could say, hoping to upgrade her mood.  The smile that began somewhere behind her eyes exerted a pull on the corners of her mouth.  I saw the smile blossom as I finished my beer, noticing that someone seen through smeared potato chip grease on a beer glass is, nevertheless, someone.  I didn’t evaluate the image I’d just seen, and I don’t think she realized that looking at her as a distortion filled me with both a dread and something else, something like a calling of some kind, a knell. 

I can’t help reality, reader.  This story begins with a greasy beer glass, and the view of a woman who was once the most remarkable girl in my life, and the impossibility of prolonging that view, or that remarkable girl.

From Bible Grove to Spelling

In the spell of monotony on the trip south from Bible Grove, a place poetic and hopeful in the unpeopled map of northeastern Missouri, one has time to imagine how to participate in the whimsy that is in the place names of this part of the country.  There’s Fairdealing in the southeast, Bolivar in the southwest, and Savannah north of St. Joe.  Savannah was named “Union” until that became an unspeakable word in those parts 140 years ago.  There’s the imaginary town of Spelling.  I like to go there (“I” being private detective Frank Sechs) with Naples for a plate of Jalapeno poppers at the diner that’s open weekends in October while the Police Academy is in session. 

I’ve been friends with Naples LaTour, on and off, for a long time.  She’s got a voice that sounds like Dutch chocolate to me, like Jane Fonda in her late thirties.  These days she’s had her hair cut short, and it’s real dark brown again like it was when she posed for that Cosmo cover that the manager of the Weiss Market had to pull off the shelves.  Her deep brown eyes have always seemed to glisten, as if she misted them or something, but I don’t think she does, and when she looks my way, those eyes hold me. 

The less said about her name the better.  Once when she didn’t want to drive all the way to Spelling with me, she said, “wouldn’t you rather tour Naples instead?” 

I met her for lunch yesterday to try to get used to the idea that she’s in my story.  We agreed to let the relationship simmer for a while and see where it might go.  For I don’t know how many years we thought we were part of different stories, but here we are.  Where will it lead?

Greetings from Naples

I belong in the autobiography of Frank Sechs, but that doesn’t mean I will let him tell you a very tall tale at my expense!  When he made that remark about viewing me through potato chip grease, I didn’t know whether to walk out or imagine he was getting into a serious vein.  You don’t know that he likes to say whatever comes to mind, whether true or not, and he thought I’d get a charge out of that.  Well, it’s flat lying, that’s what it is, and he paid dearly.

He would have you think I’m a cheap trick, to hear him talk.  I will have you know that he has not frequented a tap room since the 60s and does not know the first thing about dart sharks.  He only mentioned that because he thinks he overheard one late one night at the New College Diner when he was feeling sorry for himself about the lack of a girl in his life.  And then I walked in.  He’d never heard a civilized Louisiana accent (who has?) before he met me and he couldn’t establish my talk.  He thought we all sound like Justin Wilson and tell Boudreau and Thibideaux jokes, I gua-ran-tee.

I am part of the Langlanais family.  My only brother became a college teacher with the Christian Brothers.  Naples is a family name on my mother’s side.  It was Lucia Napoli when she came to America in the 1920s as a baby, and the Immigration officer changed the family name to Naples on the spot. Everyone called my mom Mimi, I don't know why, and when she married Jean-Claude Langlanais, he insisted on carrying her family name into the first generation of their children.  I met Gaston LaTour in high school, when he was on the football team and I played field hockey.  Our elopement was impulsive, our marriage brief, our happiness a pipe-dream.  People in town shunned me after we ran off.  The LaTours and the Langlanais clan had not been on good terms anyway, and this confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions about the other family.  I got an athletic scholarship to Penn State, and that’s where I met Frank Six.

That’s right.  His name was Six then.  His grandfather, Reinhart Sechs had been treated just as my mother had been, and had been renamed Randy Six by the immigration officer.  People with German names usually took care of changing their names on their own during the First World War, but Frank’s grandfather had come over after the Franco-Prussian War, so the family was named Six until Frank had his name legally changed to the way his ancestors knew it.  This was some time after we met and I like to think that I was responsible for what he later called his “year of coming clean.”

Of course, everyone at school thought I was some kind of hippy with a name like Naples LaTour, and the beefy guys who asked me out thought they were in for a night of smooth sailing.  Were they ever surprised!  Consequently, I didn’t have many second dates in those years.  I was feeling down about that one night in November.  Thanksgiving was a week away and I wasn't going home for it.  There was rain coming, you could feel it in your cheekbones when the wind hit you.  There weren’t a lot of people out, a few here and there, and not many cars on College Avenue.  Every now and then the only sound was that of the dry leaves retreating along the curb like a memory so painful you can’t bring it back to mind, like a picture that shatters before you can compose it, the pieces falling away, away into the dark.  I went into the diner to get warm, maybe have some pie and coffee, and as I walked down the aisle to a vacant table in the back, there was this boy I’d seen playing his guitar at the HUB, and he was having pie and coffee, and he looked up just then and our eyes met and kind of locked.  He knew he’d seen me somewhere, I just knew it.


“Hi.  I’ve seen you playing the guitar.”

“I hoped I’d see you again, but you won’t imagine the reason.  Can you join me?”

That’s how it started.  A boy with a line and a girl with a yearning for a boy with enough brains to have a line.  And what a line.  Before too long he was talking about how my face seemed to blush all the time and how my dark eyes looked so vulnerable and inviting, and how my hair did this or that when the light was on it.  It all sounded so true, I began to fall in love!  I went to the ladies room to see if I could see what he saw when I looked in the mirror.  And what made me go for a long walk with him after our dessert was that I could!  Maybe love is when you create a person who isn’t there, and then they become what wasn’t, so, sometimes for a long time, sometimes for a lifetime, it is.

--Naples LaTour

How it got started

It was a long time ago, I was just a cub, away at the university and pining for a love that was not to be.  It was a Thursday night in the wee small hours of the morning and I was out on South Allen savoring the loneliness of the silent streets, the dark store fronts, and the stoplights changing yellow-red-green with no traffic or people to direct.  A single light bulb illuminated the doorway of Centre Taxi, but no one needed a ride.  I felt like the last person in the world on that hot August night before summer term finals.  It would be an hour or two before the first shift showed up at the Corner Room to start the coffee and turn on the lights.  I kicked a candy wrapper on the sidewalk and kicked it again, and it occurred to me to find a bench and just sit there and wait a day or two for the Sunday New York Times. 

The groan and swish of the street sweeper lumbering down an alley somewhere to my right.

If I had known then that this night would replay itself in my dreams of failure for the rest of my life, I probably would never have become a detective.  It certainly wasn’t on my career radar at that time...I only wanted to be a landscaper.  The air was still humid from the thunder shower we’d had hours ago, and I savored the smell of wet concrete like a corpse.  I wished I’d brought my pipe, my tobacco pouch, my pipe cleaners, tamper, lighter.  But my Bermuda shorts were too tight for all that stuff and I didn’t want to look ridiculous when I saw my reflection in the windows.  This familiar part of town seemed like an empty stage after the show has closed, the discarded programs tossed into the trash, and the set torn down to the last staple.  And there I was, a lone actor one scene too late.

At some point I realized that I wasn’t on the sidewalk at all but was walking dead center down the middle of College Avenue, heading towards the stand of oaks where she’d first let me kiss her.  The recorded sound of Big Ben announced the half hour from the tower of Old Main...half-past what, though?  Half past nothing.

I heard a sob, over to the left. 

A girl was huddled on one of the benches that face the row of shops across the avenue.  What should I do? Leave her in the privacy of her tears?  Announce my presence with the clack of my sandals?   Rushing over seemed a really bad idea.  When you’re wallowing in the notion that you’re the last person in the world, you don’t want to reconstruct your pity to include a companion.  Should I pretend not to see her, but let her know I was present? 

I was thinking all these things as I stepped in her direction.  She didn’t hear me approach.  I stopped about five feet from her and knelt down on one knee and said softly, “excuse me.....I’m ...”

That was all I got out before she took a sharp, audible gasp and locked her eyes on mine.  They were big, brown eyes, set in a round face, framed by her dark brown hair.

“I’m Frank, I said...I wonder if you should be out here alone...can I help you?”

“I’m not going back.”

“Miss?  Can I help you?”

I stayed down on one knee, no motion, my eyes unable to look away from her eyes, which seemed to look through me and deep into my past, my future, and my nature. 

Something in her expression relaxed by half a degree.  She said, “I don’t need help,” and looked away up the empty street.

“My name is Frank,” I said. “I don’t think I should just leave you here alone at this hour.”

She looked through the back of my eyes this time.  I couldn’t move.

“Well, Frank, you are a gallant boy, and you look like you are waiting for Queen Elizabeth to knight you.” 

She rubbed her eyes and looked up the street again, and then looked up the other direction.

“I’m taking a final tomorrow and I don’t know the material,” I said.  “I never expected to have a conversation out here.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow,” she said.  “What final?”

“Baroque Art History.  The grad students are writing down everything the professor says, and I never think he’s going to TEST us on that stuff, and then he does.  I think I’m not supposed to understand his world the way they do.  But it has been an interesting D to earn, I’ll admit that.”

“When is your final?”

“Eight.  I’ll have to get some black coffee before then or he won’t have any answers to decorate with comments.”

“I don’t have any coffee here; sorry,” she whispered, and she looked up again and miles through the back of my life.

“I’m Frank,” I said, “and in more ways than one today I don’t know what to say next and I’m waiting for the door to open and the light to go on and the smell of coffee to bring me back into the world.”

“I’m waiting for a door to open, too,” she said.  “I’ve just closed one.  I don’t want to open it again.  The lights behind it are the bluest blue, and they burn like Christmas decorations someone forgot to take down last year and then just left up, what the hell?, and they burn with the comforts of little blue lies and little blue cuts, and little blue icicles...Behind that door are familiar sounds, bookshelves, records, clothes, and a history I don’t want.  Behind that door is a blue, cold wind that makes me shiver down to my backbone on the hottest night.  Behind that door, no one dreams any more and the telephone rings and rings and rings and rings, and I am not there to pick it up.  I am here.”

“I’m Frank,” I hinted, “and I’m a little blue, too.”

“Little Boy Blue,” she said.  Something like a smile crept across her face.

“My name is Naples, like the city.  LaTour.”

“Six,” I said.  “My name is Frank Six.”

Narrator’s Interlude

I've had lots of time to wonder how Naples gets off that bench on College Avenue, where she met Frank Six many years ago in the hour before dawn one August night during finals, to make the phone call that would get her a place to stay with her hockey coach for a time while she sorted out her life.  Have you?  Have you wondered how a nice guy like Frank Six becomes a professional killer before he seeks a career change, how many people he offs, what methods he uses, and what he thinks about this kind of work when he's reading Shakespeare or playing the guitar?  Naples La Tour.  Was that family name Le Tourneau at some time before anyone remembered?  And what happened in that year when Frank "came clean" and changed his name to the original spelling, Sechs, no matter how much kidding he took?  Or maybe he never kills anyone, just tells a tall tale.

And not just that.  Was it Frank or Naples who first realized that being someone's lover for a very long time entailed a kind of complex psychological theater that had less to do with the peak moments than with everything else that surrounded them?  Did they come to this understanding together or in a long period of separation?  After they came to it, did they have to work for years to put it out of mind and just play each other "by ear?"  Did Frank ever in his life want children?

Why, too, did Naples obsess about the lives of strippers and then become a nude model for the art class?  And how did that evolve into the cover of Cosmopolitan that Weiss Markets wouldn't allow to be displayed on the rack?

I don't know, I don't know.  There was a moment there on that bench when Frank did not ask the question that came into his mind.  Naples sensed him forming the question.  She knew what it would be.  She sensed him put it away and decide to be silent with her.  The entire universe seemed to enter her spirit with that realization, and Frank became its child in that moment, and Naples realized that something in her could respond to something in him until the light of stars became pure music.  Yet she also sensed more than knew that there was business that needed outgrowing, and in that dark hour, while Frank was waiting, waiting, Frank fell asleep.  And Naples knew that if she didn't get up softly right then, if she didn't walk away, that she would become Frank's love for a year, five years, ten, but never forever, because what she would be able to give him would be a thing needy and on the run, and that what she would take now would be different from what she would need later.  In that way, they would never really learn each other....they would learn a mirage, and their sadness when they stopped for water would last to the end of their days.  So she left.  She walked away, taking her chances that there would be a day for Frank and her.  And when Frank woke up and found her gone he was forlorn.  He, too, walked away...away from his final exam – he probably took a D in the course for doing that – and he just walked and walked through the neat neighborhoods of State College, wondering about the lives behind the walkways and the Tudor facades, wondering if or how he'd ever see Naples La Tour again.

There's a song by Franz Schubert titled, Frühlingstraum, a song just before the middle of his long cycle of songs about an alienated man walking into the great unknown across a winter landscape.  "I dreamed of the flowers that bloom in May," he says on the way to the loss of his mind, "of green meadows and the lusty cries of birds.  But the bird calls woke me up in the cold and darkness and there on the window I thought I saw flowers.  Go ahead, laugh at the one who sees flowers in winter."  Three thoughts, three sections.  The music in the piano that introduces the section on waking up to imagine flowers on a frosty window is like the chiming of a clock somewhere, chiming, chiming, chiming...deliberate of pace, lyrical, as if counting the hours innumerable, hours of an eternal loneliness, hours without end and without a woman's nurture...something like the soul of Frank Six that night in the moments before he met Naples La Tour and fell eternally into the unfathomable succor of her eyes.

Frank pines

The last time I saw Naples LaTour, before the missing years that ensued, her lovemaking put me in mind of the arrival of a best friend from long ago, whose name you couldn’t bring to mind, nor the basis of your friendship.  I wonder now what she thought of mine.  It was an experience lived as if by someone else, and after it I cried like a kid whose dog has died. 

For months I couldn’t bring her image into my memory, nor the look of her across the table at the diner, nor the look of her the night we met, nor the look of her across the pillow.  I would try to remember by analogy to pictures in magazines, though that notorious Cosmo cover never reminded me of her.  That was not one of her genuine looks. 

I sit here now listening to a bluesy piano, a bass player, and I still can’t bring her back into focus, not the way she was then.  I feel drugged, blasted when I think of that time, as if there’s nothing in my world except the varnish on this small table, the ash tray, the menu, a glass of beer.  And yet, I know this is now.

Out of that first meeting had come a peculiar sort of courtship.  I wonder if galaxies resemble our coming together when they meet and pass through each other over the course of millennia.  They meet, they mingle, they each emerge from the far side of each other, and they move on.  Does the meeting of galaxies entail the exchange of planets, of lakes, of a dairy cow, a diary?  It this what happened to Naples and me?

Did we bear the same cells when we emerged from the other side of each other?  Does a soul’s imprint on another soul affect the blood, the DNA, or only the chemical balances of what is and was already there?

Naples, Naples, your teeth!  How I want to remember you!

Thinking of Naples’ eyes is not the same as re-membering them.  Set in perpetually round and rosy cheeks, their dark brown essence was one of the utmost succor, sympathy, and fire.  They were the most expressive eyes I had ever seen, fathomless and containing the urgent power of oceanic rip-tide.  In their power, I was a mere sprig of seaweed in the surf.

Naples, Naples, how did we change?

It was with Naples that I learned everything important about lovemaking.  Before her I had imagined the whole of it as a matter of technique and, like dancing, something done according to various patterns of motion.  It was in dancing that Naples opened up the world of love to me.  With her, dancing became a good conversation at which intent or desire was suggested, nuanced, gamed.  The exact motions of legs and feet mattered not a bit to her. 

My own dancing was oafish, I could see a difference between us right away.  She invited me into a world she created at the moment of the dance.  I invited only her admiration, that and the passage of time and the satisfaction of exertion.  But the world she offered was irresistible, and so I learned to create worlds with her, and when that happened we were already lovers before we ever merged.
Out of that experience of new worlds created together we found ourselves changing, despite our need to remain locked in a sort of unity.  The sense of conversation became jammed by the sense that something unforeseen, unbidden, unwelcome, had moved us into different zones.  I could no sooner explain it then than I can now.

We never said “goodbye for ever,” never thought it.  We expected to see each other regularly after she moved away.  But we had sensed something suggestive of unbearable pain, I guess, and so a day became two days, and two days three, and we didn’t talk, and the passage of hours was like the weight of the sea on a sinking ship.

When we finally talked again – it really wasn’t so long – the ship had burrowed into the sea floor.  If we were ever to merge again, what would we need…a new ship?  A new sea?  A sextant set to a different star?

Oh, table, you look like a mirror in this bluesy light.  I am no longer the young man who met and loved Naples LaTour.  I am no longer a boy without a star.  Somewhere inside me is that boy…his pain and his loss infuse the layers of “me” that covered him over.  I think if I ever kiss Naples again, there will be layers of "me" in touch with her, and more than one of her to encounter me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Things Are Shaping Up Nicely

My title is taken from a the mouth of a character in one of the novels of the French author, Colette, who I remember reading during the summer of 1977 after I moved to Vermont to join my life with that of my wife of one year, "San."  I think the novel was The Vagabond, but won't swear to it.  San and I gardened like mad in our northern Vermont property, eighteen years of rural happiness before we moved to a city neighborhood in St. Louis and lived the best, and the last, twelve years of our marriage.  San died of breast cancer in 2008.

I became attached to Kathy Wofford six months later, and we married in 2009, hoping for decades together, but having only five years.  Kathy's life ran out last August.

My fiancee, Karen Berry, has been wearing an engagement ring for a month now.  We have been moving pieces of her carefully-chosen plant collection from her cottage twenty miles east of here to this landscape.  I have made room inside the house and outside the house for Karen's presence, her interests, and her creative soul.

Karen knew Kathy.  Karen was a new member of our daylily club when Kathy was elected President, just months before her diagnosis and treatment for head and neck cancer.  Kathy had the misfortune to have to inform the club membership of the board's decision to host a regional convention with only 18 months' lead time.  The matter was not put to the membership for approval, and a good number of members were hopping mad that the club's traditional way of undertaking a big project had been sidestepped.

Kathy weathered the onslaught without a ruffle, visible or invisible.  Cancer was the ruffle in her life.  Reporting a board decision to the membership was not in the same league.

Karen was the only member of the club who approached Kathy a year later and asked how she was holding up with her battle.  And Karen was the only person outside the family who Kathy told that she was worried how hard I would take her death when her time ran out.

During the change of season from summer to fall, Karen and I became a couple and Karen moved into a house in which Kathy's presence is visible everywhere you look.  Kathy was a designer by nature.  When we bought this house, she set upon a program of converting a trashy place into a classy place.  The closets are her doing, the doors, the new windows here and there, the new sliding doors, the new front entrance and the stone work leading up to it, the raised vegetable beds, the shade garden, the redesign of the block wall outside the garage, the placement of artwork in every room.

I began last fall to make space for Karen in this house.  I removed Kathy's rug and Kathy's filing boxes from our "office" and opened that space for Karen's work-from-home office.  We donated Kathy's bed from our guest room and have a replacement on order.  We took down most of Kathy's collection of Shawnee pottery and made space for Karen's collections of horse figurines and glass objects.  We replaced the dishware with Karen's Fiestaware, replaced San's Farberware cookware with Karen's preference for All-Clad and cast iron.  We have retained San's Le Creuset set.

This is Karen's place now, and we are shaping the landscape for our garden projects.

Today my contractor, Steve Brandt (right) and Tim Yankow arrived to contour the ground where storm water runs off the high side of the neighborhood over my neighbor's lawn and then across my "highland" daylily beds.  They are contouring a curved swale to  direct the flow of storm water around the daylily beds and over to the main drainage channel to the right of their position.

They are shaping the side of the new channel so that 36" wide mowing equipment can easily follow the curve without shaving off the top.  The whole area will be covered with sod tomorrow.

Here Tim is raking out the side of the swale.  You can see the elevation of the rest of the neighborhood with respect to my gardens.

Tim asked  Steve to break up one more area here.  They picked a perfect time for this work.  A few days earlier and the ground would have been too wet.  A few days later and it would have been hard as a brick.

Just below the curve of that swale is a new garden for Karen to "curate" her collection of vines and butterfly-friendly plants.  Steve and Tim will put up a 5-foot fence on the left side, thirty-six feet long, for the vines.  They will surround the bed with metal edging.  Karen will start moving plants this weekend.

Our car park area is serving as a staging ground for trays and pots of plants that will go all over the landscape.  I have three trays of a variety of Portulaca that resembles Purslane, but with narrower leaves.  I used this last summer and thought it was sensational.

We're going to try some coleus and lots of "blue stuff" and at least one Clematis.  Who knows?  I may put in four or five of them!

It was just a year ago that Kathy's friend Laurel visited here and helped me plant trays of annuals along the front.  It was seven years ago that San was unable to finish the last week of her classes at SIUE.  She passed away seven weeks later.

Spring is the season of the assertion of life in the garden.  I have been blessed in all my marriages to share the lives of women who loved plants, birds, art, and music.  Grief may continue at its own pace; but so may life.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bright Day After a Grieving Day

There's an open circle of water inside frozen Hidden Lake today.  A huge council of Canada Geese arrived a week or two ago to take up residency.  In the lawn below you can make out the black cardboard outlines of two German Shepherd "scare dogs."  They are mounted via springs to dowels in the ground, so they bob and turn as if alive.  The ducks and geese give them wide berth.

Yesterday Karen and I attended a memorial service for my friend, Bob McConnell.  A huge crowd of friends and family were present at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia.  I have not attended a memorial since the visitation I sponsored for Kathy Bouman at the end of August.  Experiences and memories have a way of overlaying.  Kathy had been a lay minister in her Unitarian/Universalist congregation.  Yesterday I was mourning two people.

I haven't written a blog since Kathy died in August.  It's not that I've been stuck in "neutral" as the world moved on.  I began a new relationship in the fifth week of mourning her loss.  It didn't interrupt or stop the mourning; I've had many a good cry since then, and there is more in there.

But I see human experience is something we feel in more than 3-D.  I began courting Kathy while I was still morning the loss of Sandra.  I wrote to Kathy that I believe we grow up in the manner of an onion, in rings of memory linked to emotional experience.  I told her there was a four-year old inside me named, "Mike," who had no understanding of death and its finality.  "Mike" was wailing for San and needed to be comforted and talked to by "Michael" who was many layers beyond "Mike" and who was able to function normally in the world.

The meaning of "normal" has to be hedged because there is nothing normal when our layers of experience and memory are at odds over the meaning of the absence of a loved one.  I told Karen about this when we began to see each other regularly.  She said, "you have to take care of that little one inside you."

Right now it is hard to look at a winter scene without a memory of winter seen from a hospital window a year ago, when Kathy was in for strategic planning by a team of specialists and then in again a week later for surgery to reinforce her neck vertebrae, which had been seriously compromised by in inoperable tumor.  This time a year ago we knew we no longer had a long-term future to think about, so we made the most of each day remaining to us.

I can also feel uplifted by a bright sunny day.  Mourning does not interrupt the capacity to feel, and it is not exclusively about sorrow.  Mourning is a long process of bringing a loved one back fully into memory.  It is an expansion of memory to include what I now include bit by bit, the memories of winter when I was courting Kathy in West Plains, the memories of our winters in University City before we began to house hunt, the memories of a house under renovation here.

The house has changed over the last few months.  Karen has decorated for the holidays and now she has begun to decorate for daily life.  There are several new guitars in this house and I play them a couple of hours every day.  I have given away the makings of a woodworking shop that Kathy assembled just before there would be no woodworking here.  Karen has added many bird feeders outside, and we are about to double the capacity for starting seeds in the basement.  The cookware has changed, the dishware has changed.  I am wearing a lot of new clothing that Karen likes to see me in.  Blue jeans, for instance.  I haven't worn blue jeans in twenty-five years.

I was looking at a map of the route to Jonesboro, Arkansas yesterday when I noticed Kathy's old town of West Plains to the immediate northeast.  I remembered seeing signs to Jonesboro when she and I were out and about during our courtship.  I thought of spreading some of her ashes in West Plains.  I should say that "Mike" had that idea.  It's not likely that Michael will go there again.  Kathy left all that behind her when she began a new life with me.  She carried all she needed in memory.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


She has been gone two days now.  I'm full of sobs.  Not fair, not ever fair.  And yet, lucky for her that she went peacefully, in sleep, shortly after we spent an hour on the couch in the living room, and I brought up every memory from our big pond of lucky, happy moments.

The smile was bigger than the woman.  The eyes!  I told her she had the prettiest eyes I'd ever seen.  I snapped this picture in 2010 when members of her family visited us in University City before our move to St. Peters.

Today I went through my pictures and selected a nice set for Kathy's memorial visitation.  They bring back memories, and it's as if she comforts me in my grief.

We had just fallen in love a few weeks before we set up this "selfie" in University City on New Year's Day, 2009.

We were made for each other.  That's what it felt like every day we were together.  We had done the work of growing up and shouldering the pain of loss, and when we discovered our pathways of communication it was as if our late spouses had manipulated Fate to bring us together.

Kathy had bought a collection of daylilies at her West Plains home several years before we got together.  I was a hybridizer; she wanted to try her hand at hybridizing.  Her intellectual gifts were formidable.  She applied them to our daylily collection -- the dozens of plants I bought for her and "my" plants at the top of our lot.  She evaluated all the collection and gave me a list of "my" plants that she wanted in the back yard with her collection.  She would have become an outstanding hybridizer, though she only had two seasons available to her.  Here she is last summer in the back yard.

She was so thoughtful about the process that she never made a high number of crosses.  She ran out of time each day.  She was one for the proper equipment and clothing.  A shady hat, a vest from the Bass Pro shop with innumerable pockets and places to clamp things.  She worked at exploring the potential of various color combinations, always trying to make the most use of her favorite cultivars, FLYING TRAPEZE and WIZARD'S WAND.

I planted Kathy's 2013 seedlings two weeks ago, when she was too weak to walk the property with me.  Today I spent the morning replacing the plastic labels in the seedling bed with sturdy metal ones.  I love the way Kathy worked at hybridizing; I love the plants she made.  I miss her like crazy today, when I would have told her about the growth of those new transplants.

She struck poses for me wherever we went.  She knew I enjoyed her animation.  Here she is on the beach during our Florida trip in 2011.

She struck this pose for my iPhone in Santa Fe a year ago.  She had lost about 60 pounds due to the difficulty of eating during and after radiation to the throat and neck.  But when this picture was taken, we believed she had been cured.

I love this pose from that Santa Fe trip.

And then....  And then....  
When she complained about pain long after she should have been pain-free, her ENT specialist ordered a biopsy of the "fried" node in her neck.  There were live cancer cells there.  He said, "I don't like what I see; it has to come out."  So at the end of October, he performed what he later called "the hairiest operation I have ever done," and followed the legs of an octopus-like tumor wherever it went and was confident that he "got it all."

Before this operation, Kathy asked me to take some pictures of her in case the surgery would disfigure her.  This is my favorite of the set, from October, 2013.

Oh, if only that had been the end of it.  But there was more cancer, this time eating away at her neck bones, discovered when she suddenly lost the use of her left arm on Christmas Eve. And so, from then until she died peacefully two days ago, we became a couple using our wits and ingenuity, and all our talents, to survive a killer condition.

It was not all-consuming, though it was a dominant feature of our lives.  Under that dominance, we wallowed in the joys we shared.  Kathy had collected all the Erle Stanley Gardner stories of Perry Mason, and she was reading her way through them and giving me the best for my bedside reading.  We grew up with that TV series in the 50s and 60s, and so we watched all the DVDs of those programs all over again.  We had loved the work of James Garner, beginning with the "Maverick" TV series, so I bought all the Maverick DVDs and we watched them starting in her hospital room in January when she was in for several days of tests and strategizing before surgery on her neck.

As we got to the end of Maverick, I bought all six seasons of "Have Gun - Will Travel" with Richard Boone.  We were on our second time through that series when Kathy ran out of life.

She set up a little "desk away from my desk" at her favorite Living Room chair, a little area of essential office supplies and a rack for storing her current magazines, books, and her tablet.  She used the tablet to read her daily newspaper after she lost the ability to hold up the pages, as in this photo I took at a Starbuck's a couple of years ago.

Yesterday when I went through her little "office" area next to her chair I found a doodle that I think she wanted me to come across on my own, a little light-hearted surprise.

One of our running jokes had to do with Kathy's "recommendations" or "tips" about how to drive, do laundry, wash her hair, etc. etc.  I would say, "Thanks for the TIP!"  So I suppose she worked out international symbols for tips and reminders and tucked her doodle away for me to find.

Kathy was a great organizer of space.  She could hang pictures in a gallery, design home renovations or an entire house (she did this in West Plains), and equip her household with all manner of organizing supplies from the Container Store.  We moved into a thirty-year old house that needed a lot of work.  Kathy mapped out the changes in the windows, the floors, and the spaces of the house, including a total remodel of both bathrooms.  Here she is with our beloved contractor, Steve Brandt early in the demolition of the wall separating the living room from the two bathrooms.

I fell in love with Kathy's nature, it's as simple as that.  I thought of her as the adult embodiment of the child on a hiking trip with her dad, one of my favorite pictures of her.

This vivacious ten-year-old was present in the adult.  She was hungry for life to her last day, when she allowed her death to complete its work while she rested.

I have resolved to honor her nature in all my days ahead, as I still honor San, who died in the summer of 2008.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Personalities of Plants

Many of the plants here have personalities.  Take, for instance this colonnade of the ornamental grass, Karl Foerster.

Sometimes I think of these as an honor guard.  Other times they are a chorus line of dancers with big plumes waving in the breeze.  We planted them along this series of paths that provide an easy way to walk though large beds of daylilies, with a wheelbarrow, a watering hose, or a friend.  

From this vantage point, you can see that the paths form a diagonal line with respect to the curves that define the edges of the beds.  Hidden Lake Drive is not visible in this picture.  It's on a horizontal line about 2/3 of the way up the image.  People walking from right to left on Hidden Lake Drive would take notice of this colonnade cutting across the opposed curves of the flower beds and converging on a berm that defines the corner of our front lawn.

Kathy placed these bright coneflowers against the block wall that was three feet farther back when we moved in.  The planting area on this side of the wall was too big.  The planting area on the other side was three inches!  Kathy asked our "resident contractor," Steve Brandt, to move the wall so that we could plant on both sides.  The wall reminds me of many walls I saw in two trips to Italy some years ago, so the wall has "personality" that I invest in it.

A little farther up the wall, there's a zigzag to make the wall meet the column supporting a white globe "night light."  I wanted some lavender plants, and Kathy dressed one of them up with this bright raspberry Yarrow, backed by the feathery foliage and small cream pink flowers of a Potentilla bush.

Another effect I like very much is the juxtaposition of sedum plants (Kathy has a big collection) with plants of contrasting texture.  In the upper left, a native Baptisia plant with yellow flowers in May.  Garden phlox on the upper right.  Yarrows here and there.  It's the sedums, though, that speak to me of Kathy's nature.  I am fascinated with all of her collections; her buttons, her Shawnee china, her full set of Perry Mason books by Erle Sanley Gardner.

There are several personalities in the circular bed above.  I planned this around the "patient presence" of a Crimson Pygmy Barberry plant.  I first bought one of these to anchor the end of a long bed of daylilies at The Green Center in University City.  I loved the effect of pink or rose daylilies with the Barberry as a background presence.

Here I think the bed is crowded with too many nice ideas.  I love the coral pink annual poppies.  I also love the blue violet Geranium, Rozanne, but it grows pretty big for the space it's in, and I love the blue flowers of Plumbago, which is not quite visible in this picture and is not yet in bloom.  The big clump of the daylily Barbara Mitchell in the foreground is going to overpower the bed in another two weeks when it's in bloom, so I have to think about reducing the bulk of that plant.

Here is a daylily that carries a twenty year memory for me, BITSY.

This plant was a Father's Day gift from my late wife, San, back in 1993 when we lived in Hyde Park, Vermont and bought many of our garden plants from Don and Lela Avery at the nearby Cady's Falls Nursery.  Bitsy starts the daylily season for us and it comes back with another round of bloom in the fall, continuing until a killing frost in November.  

In another bed in the back yard is a daylily named RIVER WIND by my California friend, Bonnie Holley.  What a personality this plant has!

This calls to mind an extravagant daylily purchase I made fourteen years ago, when Matthew Kaskel introduced his TAR AND FEATHER and said that if anyone owned just one of his daylilies, that should be the one.  I bought it, and I was wowed by the bold color and pattern.  Tar and Feather is the grandparent of Bonnie's RIVER WIND.  I see the vibrant color personality of it, but this plant is not a knock-off.  It's a step along the path of discovery that is hybridizing.

Our vegetable beds have been planted for ornamental impact this year.  In one of them we've got four artichoke plants that seem to double in size every couple of weeks.  With any luck we will be harvesting artichokes in October.  Getting there with such a statuesque plant is going to be fun!

I have enough frozen pesto to last four or five years at the rate we use it, so there is no reason to grow Basil plants except for the look of them and the scent of their leaves.  Believe me, when the San Marzano tomatoes are eating size, they will be served with fresh leaves of green or purple Basil.  I have four plants of dill to the left of the green Basil.  That's for salmon dinners or just for the fun of having a self-seeding dill forest close at hand.

Beyond the Basil bed is a feeding area for bunnies or ducks, I don't know which.  I planted the whole bed in Swiss Chard.  Some of the plants have been nibbled to ground level, while others are beginning to look too big for nibbles.  I do hope some thrive long enough to provide me with ingredients for the saute pan.

To me, these associations with memory and with human qualities are the essence of gardening.  My garden is a collection of emotional triggers.  My life is in these plantings, hundreds of stories too involved to tell, hundreds of moments, a kaleidoscope of prayer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day Camp for Toddler Geese

Carl Brandt and his helper, Jacob, are rebuilding our dock.  The grass along our part of the lakeshore is the favorite restaurant of several families of Canada Geese.  So when builders put on waders and enter the water, I wonder if the geese consider them some kind of water fowl.

They started the project yesterday by exposing the joists and piers to see if they were usable.  They are.  The challenge is to convert the dock's wavy profile into something straight and level.  They've attached a band board on the left side, leveled it, and begun the work of attaching the joists to this new level.

The green stuff in the water is the first big bloom of algae.

The area they're working on will be the lower of two levels.  The area with floorboards still attached will be rebuilt somewhat higher, with a dock entrance that is wider than the dock.

As the men worked in the mid-afternoon, several new families of Canada geese brought their goslings onto my neighbor's back yard for what reminded me of day camp.  The local duck didn't know what to make of it!

The two farthest goslings are "Teen Youth Leaders."  They were the firstborn on our lake.  Two younger families are down there, but only one is visible, with six goslings.

When the parents saw me taking pictures, they all moved together onto our back yard and down to the lake shore about twenty feet away from the non-threatening work on the dock.

Trailing behind them came a family of five.  This is how the trailing adult prods the toddlers to keep a move on toward the water.

While the procession moved into the water, the workmen shifted their attention to the band board on the right side.

When they leveled the right band board, they found that the piers on the right side were five or six inches taller than on the left side.  They will cut off the excess and continue tomorrow.