A sedan pulled into our driveway just I was about to get into my car. I approached to see what they wanted, and the passenger window rolled down to reveal an elderly woman wearing an enormous grin and waving me over excitedly. She spoke with a thick accent even after decades of living in the United States, “I used to live here!” she chortled, but I already knew who she was – The Gardener.
We bought this house in February, nine years ago, and began moving in the night before the last of 36 radiation treatments I’d had for a surprise bought of cancer. The previous fall, I’d woken from surgery to find Neil at my bedside looking through real estate ads, and four months later, he was a homeowner. The picture of us from that night, champagne in hand, shows Neil eager and perhaps a little awestruck at what he’d done, and a weary but happy me, face pale and pinched with pain. I was asleep on the floor minutes later.
The house was a late 50’s rambler (complete with rust-colored shag carpet and heavy green brocade curtains) in the town I was born in. It wasn’t what either of us had dreamed of for our first home together. But the moment we saw it, we knew it would be ours. It was the garden that really sold it.
The large lot had clearly been a showpiece at one time, lovingly cared for by someone who had become gradually incapable of tending to it as it needed. All we knew of the previous owner is that her husband had recently died, and her family had moved her to an apartment in a senior living community. As our first winter in our new home turned into spring, we discovered over three dozen roses, a dozen or more lilac bushes, fruit trees, herbs and berry bushes, native plants, perennials, and a fenced-in vegetable garden with rich loamy soil under a winter cover of leaves, ready and waiting. The Gardener had even left her tools behind, hoping that new hands would carry on.
In the last couple of years, we’ve tripled the size of the gardens, refurbished the native plantings, rebuilt the greenhouse/shed and the arbor for the enormous wisteria that shades our porch in the summer. I knew the Gardener had left her garden reluctantly, pulled away by a failing body and mind. Every spring, I wished that she could see it and know that her hard work and love were not only appreciated but continued on.
And now she was in my driveway.
“Come see, come see!” I danced around their car, my errands forgotten, trying to figure out the best way for this woman I’d never met to see her home again. Her companion removed her walker from the trunk, fretting that they hadn’t brought the wheelchair she normally used, and that they hadn’t intended to be a bother. The tiny, short-haired woman who got out of the car, though clearly quite old, hugged me with a fierce strength that left no doubt that she was going to see her home once again no matter what. There was no way this was a bother to me. Natalina was about to turn 97, excited as a child, pausing in her happy remembrances only to cry into her hands for a brief moment or to hug me once again.
“My husband worked for United Sand and Gravel. All this stone, ” as she pushed her walker up the driveway still thick with pea gravel, “came from him. “He poured these slabs and tipped them up himself, ” pointing to the stone panels that wrapped around the house at shoulder level. But she didn’t pause until she got into the back yard.
“OH!” She cried into her hands, shaking her head. “My garden! I did this all!” She launched herself at me, hugging tightly as she wept. This garden she’d created over forty years prior had made us family.
She stomped her foot on the back porch pavement, colored with the remains of rust-colored cement stain and layers of grey paint, and shook her head regretfully, “I painted this every summer.”
“Yes, and every summer I pressure wash it clean and more paint comes off”. We both laughed at the work and how silly both our actions were in the grand scheme of things.
It was no longer me guiding her, she knew what she wanted to see and pushed her walker forward, moving and chatting with a confidence and strength that surprised her caregiver. “She doesn’t really remember things and doesn’t get out much. We are about to move her to a facility….” she trailed off as Natalina started talking about her roses.
“You know, if I got a bouquet from Safeway, I just planted one of them in the ground. No one believed me that they would grow,” she swept her hand around at the numerous healthy rosebushes I dumped steer manure on several times a year. Her eyes sparkled and I could see that though she’d been bound by the conventions of her era, she’d been strong and stubborn, “They were wrong!”.
“The wisteria! No one thought that would grow so long ago”. Yes, I agree. But now, wisteria comes up rampant in the yard, and Neil sprouts seedlings to give away to neighbors.
Natalina rounded the corner of the house and stopped dead at the fig tree, laughing. “You know, my husband told me that it was too close to the house and I told him it would grow away from it. ” I laughed, “Yes, that is what Neil says too, and I tell him the exact same thing every year”. We look up at the bare sticks of it rubbing against the roof, with dozens of new figs sprouting even before the leaves emerge. It will be another good year.
“The figs were so good, I remember” She smiles, thinking back. “Yes, they still are.” I smile too, both of us lost in memories of summer days and soft juicy figs, bright green with insides pink as watermelon.
We talk about various plants and the work we have done and I can see she is tiring. Still, as she walks back to the car, she points at a rose – “That one there is yellow, it came from my daughter’s wedding bouquet”. And yes, it is true, it blooms a beautiful, blowzy yellow that is one of my favorites in the yard.
She chattered and scooted along until it was obvious that regardless of her enthusiasm, her strength was waning. As they pulled out of the driveway I shouted that they were welcome any time, knowing it was for gardeners – and this one in particular – time is measured in seasons, not years.
It’s years later now, and I just rediscovered this story in a drafts pile. I still think of Natalia as I move around our yard, now a little torn up by a new dog. The fig tree has finally been cut down for good, and the wisteria self-seeded in the front corner, creating a glorious purple hedge in early spring. I’ve survived another round of cancer, and the vegetable garden grew to feed us during a pandemic. It’s January and most things are dormant and waiting. Collards and kale feed us still, and the witch hazel I planted fills the air with its spice. But my favorite, the daphne Natalina planted decades ago, is nearly ready to bloom as pink and lovely as her cheeks that day a few years back.
Natalina died in the fall of 2019, one year after I originally wrote this. She was 98.
“Antonia Natalina Graziotto Cecchetto June 14, 1921 – Sept. 15, 2019 Natalina, as she preferred to be called, was born June 14, 1921 in Albaredo, Italy to Eduardo and Gasseffa Graziotto. The eldest daughter of five children, Natalina was preceded in death by her parents; brother, Gino; and sisters, Maria, Fidora, and Armenia. Natalina was also preceded in death by her husband of 61 years, Gino Cecchetto. Together they had a life of hard work, patience, and adventure from Italy to Windsor, Canada to Dearborn, MI to Everett, WA. … Natalina was a woman of many talents! From an amateur carpenter, EXCELLENT COOK, seamstress, knitter, crocheter, etc. What a talented woman! She will be missed.”