I was in the kitchen, canning tomatoes, when Mom phoned with the bad news.
"Cousin Fred died," she said.
"Heart attack. In the garden."
Cousin Fred was 87. He had a weak heart, ailing joints and failing eyesight, but there was still enough spunk left in Fred to tackle garden chores at his home in Halethorpe. His grandson found Fred lying amid the raspberry bushes, where he had been thinning out the old wood in midafternoon.
Halfway through his work, Fred Meeth just keeled over and died onthe soft, gentle loam that he had struggled for so long to create.
"Daddy couldn't have picked a better way to go," said his daughter, Marie Hoddinott.
It was as if Fred had struck a deal with the Almighty. Nearly 20 years ago, a neighborhood youth who watched him tend his peas and corn asked Fred why he spent so much time puttering in his garden.
Fred turned toward the boy and smiled.
"Because I'm going to die here," he said.
Aside from baseball, Fred enjoyed nothing as much as the flora thatthrived on his little 75-by-150-foot lot in southwestern Baltimore County. He understood plants, having been raised on a dairy farm long since absorbed by Westview Mall. In his last years, Fred spent untold hours fussing over his roses.
When Fred passed on, Mother Nature lost one of her oldest advocates.
Fred struggled to maintain the garden this year. The roses became weedy, and a drought killed the beans. But Fred, who had survived one heart attack and a hip operation, worked stubbornly to the end.
"If there are roses in heaven," Marie said, "he's working on them."