Thursday, August 13, 2009

secret gardens of the past

When my grandfather retired from the Army, he and his wife settled down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their house in Chapel Hill was the only house that I knew them in. And even though I only visited twice that I can remember, the memories are still strong.

It was my sister Kathy who observed that Marguerite, our grandmother, brought with her to Chapel Hill her childhood garden in Graffigny-Chemin. The remants of the garden in Grafigny are still there - the walls that enclose the gardens, an old fig tree, the flower beds lined by paths of crushed stone, the places where the arbors once stood with grape vines, and a basin to catch the rain.

Although I was just fifteen the last time I visited my grandparents' home in Chapel Hill, I still vividly remember my grandmother's garden and the stone wall that she and my grandfather built to give the house and gardens a sense of privacy. The wall was too tall for a child to see over, and even years later going back, I am struck by its size and the work that must have gone into building it. There is a shorter wall as one drives into the yard toward the house. Lining the wall are Granny's irises; in spring their stately blooms announce the season and guests alike.

In Graffigny-Chemin the wall is the first thing one notices about the house. The wall surrounds the house and its gardens. Tall and protective, it is designed to shield the people within from the prying eyes of a small village where everyone knows your business.

Granny's garden in Chapel Hill lay in the back of my grandparents' home. Behind the garden was a gravel and dirt road, which served as the hill we took turns riding down in the wagon. But, for the most part, the garden was big enough to keep or attention. A tall fig tree grew; its succulent fruit reminded me of the fig newton cookie I loved then as now. There was an arbor on which grape vines stretched. A deserted chicken coup served as the grandchildren's play house. The paths between the flower beds like the driveway were of crushed stone. Running along the path gave almost the same sound and feel of a rocky beach. There were certainly many flowers, but the only ones I remember were the irises and the tall and stately hollyhocks so common to France.

The garden in Graffigny is also still there, but without full time care, it appears neglected. Forty years have passed since my grandmother died and her sister Paula sold the house in Graffigny. Still, the house is there and the outlines of the garden they once had remain. Flower beds are now separated by boxwood, but laid out along paths that old photographs revealed once were lined with crushed stone. The outlines of two arbors, one overgrown by a tree, the other has long since fallen down and been removed are visible A fig tree stands silently along the wall. And a basin collect the rain water in the garden. The irises which must have one graced the gardens are all gone.

Listen to Judy Collins, Secret Gardens.

What my grandmother would now think? Both in Graffigny and Chapel Hill, the gardens and houses have fallen into disrepair. Time passing is a subject that I think about often.

Judy Collins said it best in Secret Gardens:

"My grandmother's house is still there, but it isn't the same. ...
I drive by the strangers,
And wish that they could see what I see. ...
I still the ghosts of the people I knew long ago. ...
Secret gardens of the heart,
Where the old stay young forever. ...
But, most of all, it is me that has changed. .."

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