Conversations in the garden with my mother

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My mother started gardening in earnest at the age of 45, when her own mother, my grandmother Grace Kelham, died in 1977. That was the year my mother and father relocated from San Francisco to Vine Hill Ranch, the vineyard property in the Napa Valley that my grandparents had assembled, and moved into the grand house that my grandfather had designed and that was completed in 1960

My grandfather was a classically trained architect with an excellent eye for scale. For his wife and himself on Vine Hill Ranch, he designed a gracious modern home in the California Ranch style featuring spacious rooms with 10 foot tall pocket doors that open directly onto a classical garden designed by California landscape architect Thomas Church. According to Thomas Church’s design dictates; the house is sensitively sited, nestled beneath a saddle in the rolling hills of the Mayacamas mountain range and with sweeping views of the vineyard and the cliffs of Stags Leap across the valley beyond a shimmering blue Chanel swimming pool. This house could easily have been the setting for one of Slim Aarons photographs of the social set of the1960’s.

When my parents moved to “the big house”, my father retired from his job as the Western manager of a national brokerage firm based in San Francisco determined to create a significant wine producing enterprise and manage the vineyard full time, as my mother was busy completing her term as the President of the San Francisco Fine Art Museums. Following their transition from a busy life in the City, my mother fully embraced her version of “country life.”

We had always spent lots of time on the ranch. Summers and weekends were at “the little house” down the road on the 150-acre vineyard property. When we were kids, while Daddy worked weekdays in the summer, my sister Alix, 2 years older and my brother, Bruce 5 years younger, and I spent our time with our mother, riding horses, swimming in the pool, and playing games in the evening, pursuits to occupy younger children with no access to TV.

Once my mother and father moved to “the Big house”, with the kids now gone away to college and boarding school, my mother hung up her riding boots and took up gardening and raising chickens, roosters and exotic rabbits. There were strict limits imposed by Thomas Church’s garden design, its symmetrical lines not allowing for much experimentation by my mother. Instead she worked the soil around the house, planting an ever expanding perennial garden on the hill just above and behind the house, closest to her bedroom, with a rambling path through ancient redwoods leading over the old “wakishaw” bridge to an eventual pond my parents created from a seasonal stream that they had landscaped. On the other side of the house, near the kitchen, was the vegetable garden to which she was continuously adding new wooden planter boxes that my father would build for her. Each summer, she cultivated an impressive array of heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes, zucchini, peppers, herbs, lettuces, radishes and cucumbers mixed in with yellow and orange marigolds. The vegetable garden was just outside of my bedroom window and the sounds of my mother muttering to herself or the dogs provided comfort on the long lazy days of summer when I was home for vacation from college or my New York life.

I have deeply loved my mother, but I wouldn’t say that we had a particularly close relationship. She had a sharp intellect, a remarkable recall for history, was well-read and versed in politics, art and philosophy, but she had no time for small talk and expressed only a polite interest in my life, my friends, my children, their schooling and my work.  Easy conversation or displays of affection didn’t come naturally between us. For me, an interest in gardening became a way to connect with her. Asking about her plants and walking the garden with her was a way for me to please her.

When my husband and I purchased our first home in the upper Haight in San Francisco after the birth of our daughter Grace in 1993, the large garden in the back was a big draw for me (which I failed at miserably). Gardening is what one did at a certain stage in life, like dinner parties (which I also struggle with). Jump ahead six years, one more child, Jamie, and a move to Manhattan, when my husband and I purchased seventy acres of land with a nondescript house on a two-acre pond in the Hudson Valley as an escape from the City. Repeating the family mantra passed down from my grandfather, “it was all about the land.” During the many years that followed, and the birth of one more child, Armant, while I spent summer weeks alone with young children and my husband stayed in Manhattan to work, gardening occupied my time. It fulfilled a creative need as well as satisfying a more acquisitive desire. My trips to the nursery replaced shopping in New York City. I purchased every interesting plant I could, memorizing the Latin names as my mother had done. As my mother had also done, I frowned on easy color from annuals or showy roses, and focused instead on form and texture. Everything in my evolving garden was maintained with my mother as my gardening muse, her voice in my head guiding me. My garden became a running dialogue with her.

In preparation for my parents’ annual visits to the Hudson Valley house at varying times of year, I would jump into action to make sure the garden looked its best. Her visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the native plant nursery in which she would buy a shrub or two for my garden, authoritatively declaring the value of the plant: “Oh, this snowball viburnum is very special,” and then a careful selection of where the plant would be situated. She would advise on gardening technique: “pull weeds by turning and pulling,” make cuttings of plants deemed desirable (once these were cuttings of an extremely invasive wild rose that I have since been trying to eliminate in a rare act of subversion), and comment on color stories. Her approval of something I had designed would ensure that the happy planting would remain in place forever, not subject to the constant rearranging and reshuffling that constitutes much of my gardening efforts.

Earlier this year, four months after the death of my father, my mother succumbed to a cancer that she had been treated for five years ago. Now, unable to leave her bed and struggling to stay mentally focused as the cancer moved into her brain, once again I turned to her garden to form a connection with her. Leaving her bedside at a loss for words during a visit from New York in early Spring, I went into a section of garden that she had started to redesign last year. I photographed the progress of the new plantings and some of our old favorites in bloom. As she was never one to communicate emotions readily in her lifetime, and as this seems to be one of the things I inherited from her, now it felt unnatural for me to say the things I wanted to say, to ask how she was feeling, to probe her about her feelings about her impending death, even to tell her I loved her. Instead, as I sat there showing her the photos on my iPad, my mother, who could not recall when or what she had last eaten, identified each plant by its Latin name – brunnera, euphorbia, salvias and pelargonium. The deathbed scenarios I had envisioned seemed only possible in movies. Instead, I looked for meaning between her words. On showing her the pictures of her garden she profoundly (or was it?) replied, “well, it was a good effort.”

Outside her window, an ancient weeping wisteria tree, planted by my grandmother for the original garden circa 1960 and propped up using traditional Japanese supports by Mr. Takahashi who worked by my mother’s side in the garden until his death approximately five years ago, stood with branches bare where there should have been an abundance of blooms. As if in solidarity, without words, its time had come.

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