In the spring of 2011 my aging parents moved from their beloved home of 52 years to live in an assisted living facility near my sister in California. We had moved my parents only after their dementia progressed to the point where they could no longer stay in their own home. Up until this time I think I still felt, in the deepest part of my heart, that if only I could give my mom and dad enough love, enough healthy foods, enough Omega 3s and other healthy supplements, structure enough exercise into their days, that they could reverse their aging and dementia and recover.
That summer, my husband and I had the emotional task of clearing out family home and selling it. Saying goodbye to our family home, which my father had designed and built with his own hands, was like saying goodbye to a living, breathing member of the family.
All this left me feeling exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed, to say the least.
Yet when I returned to my own home in Fairfield in the middle of the summer, there was the garden. We’d planted the seeds and seedlings before I’d left in early June, and at that time the garden was mostly underground. It had grown up in the weeks I was gone, all by itself. The beans were a foot high, the tomatoes flowering, the zuchini fanning their giant leaves and yellow blossoms turning into long green striped squashes.
It was a reminder that life goes on, despite our gains and losses. New life will always take over. And growth happens without us having to do much. We toss a few seeds in the soil, wait for a few rains to come and the force of nature itself creates a garden of Eden.
Viewing the abundance of my garden, I was reminded that Mother Nature was caring for my family in the same way. Without us doing anything, we would all be okay. The well-being of my parents didn’t, in reality, rest on my shoulders, or my sister’s, or anyone’s. It’s the nature of life to grow, to progress, to move forward, and the sheer force of nature itself would take me and my family wherever we needed to be. Spending time in my garden was a powerful balm to my soul.
I think this spiritual feeling that comes with being close to growing plants, to nature, was a big influence in the lives of many of our forbears in the past. As a nation, we were 98% farmers and rural folks until the end of the last century. Now less than 20% live in rural communities or on farms. Yet people still surround themselves with the spiritual garden, whether it’s their indoor plants, atriums or urban rooftop gardens.
I know the Amish hold a deep reverence for their land. They talk about this a lot. “I feel closer to God when I’m farming,” said Leah Peachey, an Amish woman I interviewed in North Carolina, who appears in my book Visits with the Amish. I know I feel closer to my roots, to my family, when I’m in the garden. My mother was an amazing gardener who always placed cut flowers from her many flower gardens in every room of our home. Her father grew up on a farm and kept a huge and prolific vegetable garden all his life.
There is an old hymn, “In the Garden,” about the times we commune with God while in the garden or in nature. My best friend from childhood, Sue Kettell, just passed away after a struggle with cancer while her sister stroked her hair and sang that beautiful hymn. I guess for all of us, the garden is a primordial place of solace, creativity and rebirth.
Below are my childhood memories of Sue, which I shared at her beautiful memorial in June. Sue was a wonderful gardener herself. I love you forever, Sue. Rest in peace.
Memories of Susan Lynn Kettell
December 28, 1952-June 23, 2014
Sue and I were blood sisters. I remember that day we exchanged blood with a pin-prick to our fingers (kids can’t do this now in the age of AIDS). We commemorated the ceremony by sewing little velvet bags and filling them with our fourth-grade photos, a piece of tree bark and a stone from the woods we explored together in our long childhood sumers.
Perhaps it was the blood, or perhaps the fact that we shared an idyllic childhood, wandering for hours among the wild flowers, birdsong and strength-giving oak trees that surrounded our homes in Brenwood Estates, but we shared a bond that I have yet to fathom fully.
As childhood friends often do, we went our separate ways after high school, but somehow we kept finding our way back to each other, me visiting Sue after her youngest son Tom was born, she visiting me in Iowa where my husband and I made our home. When I posted a booksigning on Facebook a few years ago, Sue surprised me by jumping into the car and driving the 256 miles to Iowa to be there for my special moment. As always, she didn’t want to be a bother and spend the night, so after the festivities she jumped in her car and drove all the way back. It was a gesture of pure love.
Then suddenly about 4 years ago we both found ourselves back in the ‘hood. She was living in her in an apartment at her parents’ and I was spending a lot of time at my parent’s home as they aged. When my dad’s health declined precipitously and my mom broke her hip, Sue was there by my side, supporting me during a really difficult time and helping my parents as a private nurse.
This was when I got to see Sue’s professional side—and what an amazing nurse she was! Once when my dad fell and his fragile skin tore, she helped me get him to Dr. Rozner’s office at 9:00 a.m., where despite a waiting room full of patients, the doctor showed us to the only room available, a storeroom. Sue immediately gloved up and became Dr. Rozner’s ad hoc nurse, efficiently locating and handing him the scissors and anesthetic and needle and thread which he used to give my dad 16 stiches on the spot. I
Later she helped my sister Cathy move my parents to an assisted living near Cathy’s home in California. I can’t describe what a comfort it was to have Sue there during this difficult transition as my parents left their beloved home and neighbors of 52 years behind—for my parents, Sue was someone they trusted and loved her like their own children.
In the end, Sue was not only a blood sister but a soul sister to me. It’s not like we spent hours talking about our common political views, our common interests in yoga, meditation, and spirituality. We just found our hearts, again and again, sharing the same space in this journey of life. I am so grateful that I was able to visit Sue two months ago. I found her to be filled with quiet dignity despite being in physical pain, meeting each challenge with inner fortitude and peace in her heart. I feel grateful that she was surrounded by her loving family, who unselfishly nursed her and lavished her with love during these difficult last months. Sue has given me so many gifts, and I feel fortunate and humbled to be Sue’s friend.
Last week I was with my mom in California and I ran across a birthday card that Sue had sent to my mom a few years ago, right after my parents moved across the country. She wrote, “When I walk through the woods and pick the wild flowers, I think of you.”
And that is how I will always think of Sue, a gentle spirit, and when I walk through the woods and pick the wild flowers, Sue will be there with me.