Planting to remember, honor lost loved ones

Grieving gardeners put their hearts into their work

September 23, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

Perhaps it is a hydrangea chosen because it was Grandma's favorite flower. Or a rose bush rescued from Mother's garden before the old homestead is sold.

It may be as simple as a potted plant retrieved from the funeral home or as elaborate as a meditation garden with a reflecting pool.

Grief often finds its expression in nature.

The simple act of planting a tree or creating a quiet spot outdoors to sit and remember - or the therapeutic exertion of working in a garden - is a mysterious source of comfort for the bereft.

Grief counselor and garden designer Marsha Olson of Colorado planted a tribute garden after her brother died of AIDS in 1990, and has since written a book to guide others who believe that their sadness might find expression in a garden.

She opens A Garden of Love and Healing: Living Tributes to Those We Have Loved and Lost with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"All my hurts, my garden spade can heal."

That is true of many more than the poet.

"I like to garden," said Margaret Filbert of Ellicott City, who lost a 4-year-old grandson to a rare disease in 2001.

"It seemed natural that I would put in a garden in his memory."

So she opened up a new garden bed in 2002 in a spot just behind her home and dedicated it to Tristan. Among the

gladiolas, blooming a bright salmon color, and under the Japanese snowbell tree, sits the small statue of a little boy reading.

"I think of him a lot," said Filbert, "and I miss him. He really was a sweet child, and he loved to read."

Whether you hold a dedication ceremony, have the garden blessed by a priest or simply think about those you have lost while on your knees in the soil, there is an inexplicably sacred connection between flowers and the dead.

This connection may have begun in the Middle Ages, when the priests, poets and storytellers assigned saintly attributes to flowers and herbs: rosemary for remembrance, borage for courage, sage for wisdom, pansies for good thoughts, lilies for purity, violets for humility, and marigolds for heavenly glory, just to name a few.

These connections are reinforced today by the naming of designer roses for the dead: John F. Kennedy, Diana, Pope John Paul II.

It makes sense that only the expansiveness of nature provides room enough for the grief that the hearts of the living cannot contain.

"It is a way to express both joy and grief," said Barbara Holdridge, who planted a garden in a spot on a hill where her husband, Larry, used to stand and watch the swans in the pond below.

"I can remember Larry putting his foot on that rock," she said.

Larry Holdridge died in 1998 of a heart ailment. They had been married for nearly 40 years, most of it spent at the historic Stemmer House in Owings Mills, where they cultivated six of the 28 acres in formal gardens.

Now, one of those gardens contains a piece of statuary that resembles a book on a podium. Inscribed there are verses from her husband's poetry, which read, in part:

"Rest my love, in peace, and sleep

"Dreamless

"Gleamless

"Themeless

"Sleep."

Underneath the statuary are her husband's ashes.

"I don't have to go to a cemetery," said Holdridge, sitting on a bench among the plantings. "I can visit him every day."

Holdridge was one of more than 100 gardeners who entered the Sun's first garden contest this summer, and hers was named runner-up in the large garden category.

Matching characters

The competition revealed something besides beautiful gardens: Gardeners often turn over their feelings of grief as they turn over the soil.

Elva Tillman's mother died 30 years ago, but every Mother's Day she buys a plant or some flowers, just as if her mother was still alive to delight in them.

One year, Tillman, whose garden was recognized by the Sun as best small garden, purchased an azalea for her mother, but the shrub faded quickly, pricking Tillman's conscience with its dry branches.

"That bush looked like it had passed away itself," said Tillman, an attorney for the City of Baltimore. "But something told me to put it in the ground and, just like that, it came back to life."

That was 16 years ago. Now her rowhouse garden - not much bigger than a picnic blanket - in Southwest Baltimore is filled with plants and shrubs. Each one commemorates people in Tillman's life who have died.

She choose the forsythia because it is tall and imposing like her Aunt Ida, the woman who helped care for Tillman and her siblings when her mother became ill.

The honeysuckle's perfume is as sweet as her brother Richard; the rose of Sharon is as tall and dependable as her brother Louis.

Symbols of love

June Bond honors her mother with her favorite color - coral - in a memory garden planted beside her Cedarcroft home.

"And my mother loved impatiens," she said, gesturing to the claw-foot tub that became a garden planter spilling over with Dorothy Linzey's favorite flowers.

She added the figure of an angel blowing kisses because that is how she and her mother said good night after the older woman became too weak to speak.

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