Me, Mother and our Secret Garden

The weather is beautiful today. So many people are out walking their dogs, couples taking walks, children riding their bikes and scooters. Springtime is one of my favorite seasons (just behind autumn) because I delight in seeing my flowers grow in the garden. This week I have been bringing in handfuls of roses from my garden, enjoying a new bouquet on my desk each day.

I thought you might like to read an essay I wrote earlier this year in a creative writing class. The professor challenged us to write about a place that is important to us. I immediately thought of the Fort Worth Botanical Garden, and all the times my mother took me there.  Mother taught me many things, and her love of nature is one of them. I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I did writing it.

1968.

Trying to recapture memories of days spent with my mother in our secret garden is like attempting to catch hundreds of puffy white seedlings blown away from a dandelion. It’s impossible. Images of Mother and me click through my mind like sepia tone slides in a Kodak carousel. The Fort Worth Botanical Garden has not only historical significance for the city, but my childhood as well. I freely explored nature, played make-believe, and made cherished memories with my mother in the gardens.

Before I started kindergarten, around 1968, Mother enrolled me in a preschool program at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, also referred to as “museum school.” A few days a week, we engaged in art, music, and literature to learn about natural and physical science. I loved going to museum school and bringing home my class projects for show-and-tell with my parents in the evening after dinner. Mother proudly displayed my work on the refrigerator with a giant magnetic clip. I distinctly remember the teacher dedicating an entire class time showing us how to draw rocks. As a result, my works of art usually involved landscapes with rocks, turquoise water, pale blue skies, an orange smiley face sun, and bright colored flowers.

When the weather was pleasant outside – not too hot from the Texas heat, Mother packed a lunch for us in an old wicker picnic basket, and after museum school, she’d drive us to the Botanical Gardens. These excursions didn’t happen every time after school. I think my mother wanted them to be a treat to look forward to, rather than a mundane activity. I recall how excited I would get the minute we approached the car in the school parking space, and I’d spy the picnic basket in the back seat. I don’t remember the first time she took me, but I do recall how magical it was every time we went.

She’d park the car, carrying the picnic basket in one hand while holding my tiny hand with the other, and we’d walk to the rose garden entrance. Massive stones formed the entrance’s foundation and half walls, and stone columns supported a white lattice arbor. Climbing red roses covered the top of the arbor. I remember the thick, twisting branches weaving through the opening of the arbor clinging tightly to the structure. We walked through this entrance to the top of the stairs leading down into the rose garden. From our vantage point, high atop the rose garden sidewalk, the landscape looked to me like a kingdom. Mother and I seemed so small compared to the massive limestone walls, white gazeboes covered with thick masses of yellow, red and pink roses, bubbling fountains visible from the path, birds flying by and sitting atop branches singing their beautiful, welcoming songs. Along the way, she pointed out different rose bushes, encouraging me to smell the colorful buds and tell her what I thought about their fragrance. Did it smell sweet, did it have a scent at all? It’s odd when you think about it – children don’t have enough memory imprints to recall fragrances. But, I believe my response would have been the flowers smelled like Koolaid or animal crackers – two things I enjoyed very much during preschool snack time.

Water trickled down the center of each of the terraces as we made our way down to the bottom. I remember leaning over the water and running my hand through the blueness of it, seeing my reflection, splashing water on my romper. Mother taught me to welcome the accompanying insects and not to be fearful of them, but also to respect their boundaries. Bees and butterflies were my friends, and I often gave them names. Mother loved how I called them “Fly Butters.” At the bottom of the steps, just to the right of the rose garden, Mother led me through a giant iron gate attached to very tall limestone walls. As we stepped inside, she knelt down to my eye level, saying, “This is our secret garden. It belongs to just us two.”

Where the rose garden exploded in warm colors of reds, pinks, and yellows, our secret garden was cool, green, lush, mossy, and damp. Directly in front of me sat a large pond fed by a fountain cascading down a limestone path leading up to a resting area. Through tufts of green grass around the water, I could see heads of turtles bobbing up and down, and bubbles in the water from fish surfacing for air. The water in the pond was murky green, not crystal clear, like the rose garden fountains. Orange, white, black, and silver Koi fish swam around my shadow as I peered into the water.

Familiar and secure in my surroundings, I often let go of my mother’s hand and wandered. I ran up the limestone path, my legs too small to take the steps in one stride, so my feet shuffled two or three paces on each stone until I reached the top. I’d arrived at my destination – The Keebler Tree. That was the tree’s nickname because it looked like a Keebler Elf tree – the iconic elves from the commercials on television who make the Keebler cookies. In reality, it was a Pecan tree with a hollowed-out trunk, the opening large enough for a child-sized person to go inside. It felt dark, damp, and cozy inside the tree. I imagined animals gathering there at night after the gardens closed. I touched the inside of the tree, rubbing my fingers along the rough, nubby wooden trunk. It smelled like mud pies.

By this time, Mother made it to the top of the stairs and had spread out our picnic on the walls of the limestone rest area. I called this “Our castle.” It was square and formed with large limestone sections cut into cubes, perfectly stacked on top of each other. Concealed from the rest of the garden’s view, our castle formed the heart of our secret space. Its walls were just tall enough for me to work with effort using my arms to pull the weight of my short, stubby legs up to sit on the sides. In the middle of the square was a concrete drinking fountain. I was too short of reaching it, and Mother lifted me to take a drink of the cold water. I remember the feel of limestone on my legs  – warm from the sun, rough against my skin, rubbing rust-colored powder on my romper bottom. Mother prepared my favorite lunch – honey butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off. I nibbled on the bread, and we talked about the beauty around us. What kinds of animals lived in the gardens, what did they eat, and so on. I don’t remember hearing anything but the sound of my mother’s voice and how the sun felt on my face filtered through the giant trees hanging over our kingdom. After a while, I wanted the nearness of her, and I hopped down from the ledge and sat on Mother’s lap, feeling her long legs and arms wrap around me as she’d tell me a story, kissing the top of my head.

After lunch, we’d go on nature walks to seek discoveries and review what we’d seen before. If we came to a toadstool, Mother bent down, and I’d squat beside her, balancing my weight to look at what she was showing me. Toadstools were seats of the fairies in the garden, she’d say. The fairies gathered in the evening to review the day and discuss the visitors to the garden. I remember being so intrigued, wondering if the fairies wore flowers as hats, how their voices sounded, and whether I was the topic of their conversation. When I see a toadstool in the yard on a dewy spring morning now, as an adult, I smile and wonder how their meeting went from the night before.

Mother made sure to include valuable lessons during each of our visits: clean up after your picnic and never leave trash behind; enjoy wildlife from a distance because the garden is their home, and we are their guests; never pick a flower because we want other people to enjoy its beauty. As Mother said, “If everyone took a flower with them, the garden would be empty.” I recall feeling rested and satisfied when I left at the end of our visit as if being surrounded by nature was a way for me to wind down from the day of school. I had Mother’s undivided attention. I felt content that I had received all of her during our time together with no distractions. The gardens felt like my home, yet reverent. I always felt like the gardens welcomed me back time after time. I wish I had asked my mother what made the garden special to her. I do know Mother was in her element in the garden. It was as if she presided over our kingdom – she was the radiant Queen, poised and regal, and I, her golden-haired princess. I don’t remember anyone else ever being present in the garden when we were there. I felt like God created the gardens just for the two of us to enjoy.

2020.

The magic is gone. Where is my tree – what have they done with it? I haven’t been to our secret garden in many years, not since Mother died. I have a map in my hand as if I would forget how to get there. I walk through the gates just off the rose garden, but I don’t recognize the space. Am I wrong? I look at the map; my hands tremble. Surely this isn’t the place I played with my mother when I was a preschooler?  And then I see it. My heart deflates. Instead of feeling light in my feet like the little four-year-old me, my steps feel like concrete blocks as I walk toward the Keebler Tree. Instead of a tree, there’s a sign dedicated to its memory: “Here once stood a 200-year-old pecan tree who witnessed the arrival of traders when they camped near the springs of the area in the early 1840s. The tree survived decades with a hollow trunk, and generations of children stepped inside it or played beneath its majestic boughs. The tree died and became structurally unsound and removed. In tribute to the beloved tree and the memories surrounding it, here grows another native pecan tree planted in 2015.” The heartfelt inscription on the bronze plaque acknowledges my pain but does little to soothe it. I cry. I am crying in the garden, trying to conceal my tears from people walking by. Our secret garden is gone.

I find a wooden bench, something new to the garden, and sit down. I frantically look around. I feel so out of place here. I want to be transported back to 1968. I am begging my brain to help me remember what the garden looked like, and the moment Mother showed it to me for the first time. I want the smell of moss, damp dirt, and bugs to name. I want a hazardous tree to climb into and will myself back to those summer days. This space is no longer where I am supposed to be. The garden is now neat, tidy, bare, brown, and devoid of emotion. It offers no hiding spaces to play hide-and-seek nor stepping stones to jump. There’s newness. It looks like any other garden you’d see at a roadside rest stop. No one here knows what I know. No one will ever see the gardens the way I see them. It’s as if I have lost one more piece of my mother since she died. I am mad at myself for not being better at paying attention to her lessons about nature.

After a while, I get up and walk around almost reluctantly, like a bored child ready to leave. The overlapping trees are gone. It’s as if a giant pair of tweezers plucked and thinned all the lushness out. I see the bright sky overhead, where once were shadows. The castle is gone and replaced with groundcover. The pond is long empty and filled with flower beds. This part of the garden consists mostly of new things – sidewalks, benches, and a teak bridge covering stepping stones now. The same rocks I stepped on. I don’t like any of this garden or the people who designed it. Undoubtedly, the master gardeners came here as children and felt some sense of responsibility to restore the space rather than sterilize it. Hadn’t they looked at old photographs? I feel betrayed. I walk over to the single Koi pond, spared in the renovation of the garden. I look down and see a small, dirty turtle in the water. The turtle gazes up at me, frowning. We connect our gaze for several minutes as if he knows what I am thinking. He wishes the secret garden would come back, too.

It takes me a few days to process what I saw on my recent visit. I have spent this past week closing my eyes, in quiet reflection, writing notes on what I did remember in 1968, rather than focus on what was presently missing in the garden. I realized as a result of the busyness of life I hadn’t afforded my mind quiet moments to recall the days when Mother took me to our secret garden. Instead, I was relying on what I thought it would look like now to trigger my cherished memories. I still feel the need for something tangible to trigger long-forgotten details.

I call the Fort Worth Botanical Garden office and a day later connect with their senior Horticulturist and the historian from the garden society. They email me copies of old photographs to help me put the puzzle pieces together of my childhood memories. While the historian doesn’t have pictures from the 1960s, she does have some from the 1940s. The familiar landmarks are there – the castle, and the limestone stairway leading to the Keebler Tree. She tells me everything was removed in 2015 when the tree died. It’s as if the tree was the glue that held the garden together.

This experience has me feeling melancholy. I don’t have the tangible gifts of the gardens as a reminder of the moments I had with my mother; I do have my cherished memories.  Unlike limestone castles and hollowed out pecan trees, memories last a lifetime. Now I will return, think of Mother and me walking through the entrance of our secret garden, and up the path to the old hollow tree. I know something no one else knows, and that’s just fine with me.

Written by Melissa Austin-Weeks in loving memory of her mother Earnestine M. Reeves February 16, 2020.

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