I wrote about one of my first encounters with my neighbor Shirley here. I met her in the spring of last year, while she was in her backyard (and I in mine) tending to her garden.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that she played an integral part in getting me excited about my own garden. At most, I’ve watched my Hawaii family expertly grow and care for flowers (orchids, roses, bird of paradise, red ginger) and produce (mangos, papaya, peppers, jackfruit, tomatoes, ginger root), but hadn’t done much of it myself.
On top of that, gardening is so different in the Midwest than Hawaii or California. In Hawaii, you plant something and it just sort of grows (except my mom/auntie have not had success in growing cherry tomatoes, whereas they grew like weeds for my grandfather, who planted in the same spot). San Francisco is a little trickier because of the fog and cold, and I didn’t get much opportunity (except for pruning) to work with plants while we were there because we had a shared backyard and finicky neighbors.
Here in Michigan, zone 5 (didn’t even know what a hardiness zone was and that you even had to pay attention to them), the weather plays a huge factor on what you can plant and when. And shade plays a big part as well, which is tricky with our backyard, which is bordered by massive maples and evergreens. And let’s not forget soil acidity. GAH.
She taught me how to divide plants, how to transplant them – what soil/compost mixes to use for planting, which plants like shade vs. the ones that like sun, which ones are good for ground cover, perennials vs. annuals, etc.
She reminded me that transplants take a year or two to really flourish (she gave me so many last year. Half my beds are filled with flowers/plants from her garden), so this spring was very exciting as I watched the different plants rise up from the ground, strong, healthy and happy.
I was aware that Shirley had cancer. I had heard from a couple people (bless this town), though never from her personally. On the outside, she was just as healthy and happy as those spring plants, but this summer it hit hard, and she passed away Saturday morning in her sleep.
I didn’t have a chance to see her during her last days. By the time I figured out that things weren’t going well, her visitor list was limited, as she needed to reserve her strength. Fortunately, I was still able to communicate with her through email – via her daughter, who relayed sentiments from me to Shirley and vice versa.
I was able to tell her how much she meant to me. More than a teacher or a mentor, she was someone who came into my life when I was feeling not so great about having moved here (small towns are hard to crack, especially as an adult). And being able to work the land gave me a connection to Grosse Pointe that I desperately needed.
Her daughter wrote back… “Did (Shirley) ever tell you how she became interested in gardening?” (no, she did not) “It was not from her parents–they never gardened. It was a neighbor who gave her a paper cup with a few seeds planted in it which she put on her windowsill. It was the first thing she ever grew.”
She also expressed that “she is happy to know that some of her favorite plants will live on in your (my) garden” and I promised her that I would continue to have the girls plant with me and help tend the land, even though they might not do things exactly the way I want. I promised teaching with patience, in her honor. It’s going to be really hard, but I am going to try my best to stick to that promise.
One of the most memorable things I learned from Shirley was to say goodbye and thank you to my garden. One afternoon I saw her and her husband walking slowly around their garden, and she told me she was saying goodbye.
My first thought was, “why? what happened? are you moving?” What she meant was that gardening season was coming to an end, and thus she was no longer fertilizing, dividing, weeding. The plants would be left alone to their own devices until the following spring, so she was thanking them for being a part of her garden and saying goodbye until next year.
And so I say goodbye and thank you to you, Shirley. Thank you for being a part of my garden and goodbye. Until we meet again.