Because spring is too lovely for hard hearts, because it is the ninth anniversary of my mother’s death, because I buried a mother-in-law last week, and because my father lies dying too slowly of advanced dementia paired with cruelly efficient good health, I’m going to tell you a story. It has nothing to do with a pink sweater or a nine inch blade, but there are sticks involved.
When I was a girl, our weekends were always the same: an hour or so of hard labor behind the wheelbarrow, tracing a familiar path from garden to street and back again before my sister and I were set free to play in the neighborhood for the long idylls of childhood. I can’t remember whether or not I grumbled, but I do remember loving the vast oasis that my parents created in our modestly-sized yard. As soon as I had my first patch of dirt, nothing could stop me from transforming it, even though it was a scrappy bit behind a two bedroom condo on a busy street. In went the brick terrace and planting bed walls and matching semicircles on each end, laid as my father had taught me, and using scavenged brick, which is always, somehow, the prettiest. I learned the name of every plant I saw and sank the sweetest into the tiny two foot wide beds, and to be honest, the hours spent there were the best part of my introduction to marriage — working together to create something lovely.
I was an odd child, and my parents worried about me. Far too quiet, they were never entirely certain what was going on with me and I consistently refused to spill, never learning to love the sound of my own voice when there were so many deeper, richer, more exquisite voices to attend to: leaves rustling in the wind, clear water spilling over mossy stones, or whispery moments of tender stillness. As I grew, my passions fell into categories like: You Can’t Make a Living at That or Pam, Don’t They Teach Anything at Duke That You Could Put on a Resume? And so the Dreamer/Watcher/Seer/Knower/ became a woman of immense awareness and modestly practical skill sets who still runs on quiet passion and an infinite belief that anything is possible.
And so it happened that I recently spent many days in preparation, scouting perfect malleable fresh and willowy newly spring-trimmed branches of hornbeam, cherry, redbud, crape myrtle, and ligustrum, loading them into a truck with my partners in crime, hauling them home and stacking them to the size of a small cabin, and then taking each in hand and clipping every side branch of every stick until each inch was long and lithe enough to slide unfettered into new life.
On Sunday we eased them back into the truck and Laura and her boys delivered them to the gallery, all in lovely bundles tied with white bows and standing coyly against the brick like wallflowers hoping for the next dance. On Monday, a bevy of us gathered around the welded frame created by our friend and partner Amy, and began to circle and consider and select and place, which just happens to perfectly match my non-paying skill set. Most came by for an hour and stayed for three or four. Passersby stopped and gladly accepted a branch to place. A news videographer finished filming a same-old event two blocks up, made his way back to us, and bemusedly asked question after question as he added his own pieces to the whole. A gentleman in a hurry made sure we knew he’d like an extra bedroom added on, and that in exchange, he’d build the brick terrace. In herringbone please.
So yes, on March 30 I spent a day doing all those things that pay nothing and yet have made me who I am today, considering and placing, building and creating something where there was nothing before. It’s what I do; it’s who I am, and it may not look like much (“Every time I look at her she’s staring out the window,” a co-worker once said), but isn’t that how the universe is born? Brick and mortar, leaf and bloom, novels and poetry and art (we are all masters) all begin with staring out the window for hours at a time, and then it begins, twig by twig to masterwork.
And to be honest, of course, I’m no Patrick Dougherty. But I’ve become, in some small way, a bit of a stick whisperer, as have the many Ciel artists, family members, and strangers who’ve worked alongside us to birth an idea for the simple joy of creation. This was, in short, one of the best days I’ve spent — under glorious skies side by side with those I love in both body and spirit. But it was more. It was a deep and powerful and abiding connection with my childhood Saturdays, with the attention and joy embedded in the gardens created from scratch by my mother and father and mother-in-law. I know my mom is shaking her head just a tiny bit at what is aptly called a folly, but I know it feeds her joy just as it feeds mine, and I know my father is placing twigs alongside me and showing me how to frame the arch above that window. And even though it hurt to be without them on March 30, I know they were there with me, and we were all happy to be making something pretty on a beautiful day.