Of Gardens and GranddaughtersWednesday, April 22, 2009
For many of my 30 years in Vancouver, I was plagued by Italian cars with a slipping clutch. My mechanic, Girolamo Clemente, would say, “It could fail today, in a week, or in a year. I can’t tell you when.” So I became used to nursing a slipping clutch and identified my own life with that of my cars. The trick with both is to drive to the destination with minimum expense for maintenance and to synchronize mechanical failure with arrival. At 66, I often remark to my friends that, after half a century of existence, the rest is a bonus and I need not worry about keeping fit, running, or eating well to live longer.
My granddaugthers, eleven-year-old Rebecca and six-year-old Lauren have changed all that.
It all started when Rebecca was six and she asked me why I had my hand on the shift lever of our family car (which my wife has named Sophie). “Papi,” Rebecca said, “Sophie is an automatic.” I was speechless. Since then I have wanted to live as long as I can, to see what she will come up with next.
Rosemary and I work on our heavy-duty corner garden in Kerrisdale for more than 10 months of the year. The work seems to get tougher every year. The thought of a smaller garden has been an attractive alternative, but we discarded that idea the moment Rebecca began to walk. She would run into the house and rush through the kitchen and out to the backyard. We have come to understand that we are going to stay with our large yard for Rebecca and her sister Lauren, as the garden will be their bank of future memories.
Rebecca’s education in the garden began almost as soon as she was born, with our babysitting chores, usually on Saturdays. On nice days, we would put a blanket on the lawn and lie down to listen to “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” on CBC Radio. By the time Rebecca was three, she was interested in smelling the roses, and by the time she was 8, she demanded we take her to Madama Butterfly.
In June of 2003, we traveled with Rebecca to the American Hosta Society national convention in Washington, D.C. One day, we hopped on the Metro to go to the zoo, and Rebecca observed a fellow passenger who had an AHS convention name tag. “Do you have Hosta ‘Janet’?” Rebecca asked the woman. She replied that not only did she have Janet, she also possessed a splendid specimen of June. Rebecca came back with Marilyn, Mildred Seaver, and Mary Marie Ann, all hostas in our garden. We knew then that Rebecca had not only an uncommon interest in plants but also a very good memory. Coming home on the airplane, Rebecca clutched a plush cat given to her by the Hosta Queen herself, Mildred Seaver, which Rebecca instantly named Rosa. Packed in our luggage was a clandestine import: Rebecca’s miniature Hosta ‘Cat’s Eye’.
I have learned to look at our garden through Rebecca’s eyes. I tend to buy plants with stories, so that I can tell them to her; I have played her Dvorak’s cello concerto performed by Jacqueline du Pré, so that both of us can imagine the music when we look at her lovely white namesake, Rosa ‘Jacqueline du Pré’.
Rebecca’s favourite pastime is our bamboo-stick game. With stick in hand, she is ready to run to mark the location of any particular rose. I might mention a rose that smells of magnolia, soap, and lemon (‘Fair Bianca’) or ask her to spot the location and name of a red rose with a white edge ( Rosa ‘Baron Girod d’Lain’), and she knows where to find most of my 60 roses. After I showed Rebecca the scans I have made of roses by placing them directly on my flatbed scanner, it wasn’t long before she started running into the house with seeds, leaves, butterflies, bees, wasps, and even a fly that she had swatted, demanding: “Scan this one.”
There is a bittersweet paradox in all this. As Rebecca pushes me in the direction of my youth and invigorates my life, she is growing up. I have taken many pictures of her in the garden. At first she would strike poses while asking me, “How’s this?” The photos were intriguing, but when I showed them to Rosemary, she was disturbed by them. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the poses were of a child wanting to look like an adult. They remind me of the 19th-century portraits of Alice Liddell by Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). I don’t worry too much. Now Rebecca objects to having her pictures taken but her sister Lauren is most keen. The wonderful experiece of educating Rebecca through the garden is now happening all over again with Lauren.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait for next Saturday to tell Lauren as I once told Rebecca how my Taxus baccata ‘ Standishii’ brings to mind the long bows of English yew that defeated the French at Crécy and at Agincourt. Somehow now not only because of Rebecca but also because of Lauren I want more borrowed time.