I never took a formal art class but living in Chicago, I had access to the all the treasures of the venerable Art Institute. I visited often and appreciated the work of so many artists whose glorious paintings spanned countless years, cultures, and genres. I loved Van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, Dali and so many others, but I especially loved Claude Monet. Currently, in my bedroom, I have this glorious painting of his wife Camille and his son hanging on my wall. In my mind, when my husband was so ill with cancer, I thought frequently of Monet’s paintings of Camille on her death bed. Photos would have to suffice for me.
When I was twenty, I rambled through Europe, hitting plenty of museums along the way. In England I saw the Tate and The British Museum, The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, The Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. With more years under my belt, I would’ve known that rather than visiting the opulent Versailles, I’d have been better off traveling to Arles where Van Gogh painted so many masterpieces, and to Giverny, Monet’s home and the site of his beloved gardens.
Monet lived to be eighty-six years old and was an artist who was famous in his lifetime. He is believed to have created over 2500 drawings, pastels and paintings and likely many more. Some were probably lost to history, while it is estimated that he personally destroyed over 500 whose imperfections enraged him. He rubbed shoulders with famous people of his era, including other artists, writers and government officials. Despite declining vision, he painted his large water lilies panels beginning in his early ‘70’s, fussing over them like his children. I read a book about his obsession with them called “Mad Enchantment” which described his arduous journey through this consuming project. I was lucky to see them in a traveling exhibition in Chicago, room after room of these towering paintings, which he began when he was a mere year older than I am now. I only recently read his quote that he considered his garden his most beautiful masterpiece. I was so surprised by that. Maybe he knew that because of his fame, Giverny would become a living treasure, maintained throughout decades subsequent to his death. Even for him, there were periods of neglect for the demands of an ever-changing garden landscape. But his most beautiful masterpiece? All living things go through cycles of change and decline, easily falling into tangled ruins of what once was close to perfection. How could he not anticipate that his glorious paintings were his legacy to a still appreciative world of art lovers? Just exactly what is a legacy anyway? Does everyone leave one, including the least known, least talented among all of us humans?
The green yarn in my lap is going to be turned into a baby blanket for my new granddaughter who is scheduled to arrive in early November. I made blankets for my two grandsons, ready when they were born, and I know that my daughter will save them until they grow up and leave home, with the hope that they’ll appreciate their long-gone grandmother who spent hours oozing love into these cozy coverings for life’s cold days. I’m sure my granddaughter will have hers as well. But legacies mean lots of different things. They can be the passing on of money or family heirlooms. They can mean preferential treatment at universities and clubs for the offspring of former students. I suppose my family is a kind of legacy, Michael and me having contributed some fine people to what continues to be an increasingly messy world. I think my crew is on the clean-up side of that equation. In addition, I guess the writing I’ve been pouring out for the majority of my life is some sort of legacy. Often my words have touched my family of relatives, friends and total strangers, which I think probably fits somewhere into the concept of legacy. But I, coming up on my 44th year in my house, the first place I ever had the opportunity to grow a garden, am kind of stuck on Monet’s thought that his garden was his most beautiful masterpiece.
When we first started out, our house was broken into three apartments. The double lot had a spruce tree on its south side by the driveway and another tree which was sticky-leaved and unattractive. Volunteer trees and weeds lined the front sidewalk while the lone flowers were two stands of peonies, white ones in the front yard and pink ones in the back. Initially we didn’t do much outside, as reclaiming our first floor apartment from the neglect of almost 45 years took up a lot of time.
By the following year, we’d replaced the front porch. I got interested in the patch of dirt next to it and using broken bricks that were lying around the yard, made a border, and planted some annuals like marigolds and petunias in that little plot. We fenced in the yard for our dogs. I started planting flowers in front of that fence. In the early ‘80’s, we painted the house. Michael cleared away the sticky tree and all the weedy trees in front of the house. We planted a couple of bushes and gave the place a whole new look.
During those ‘80’s, we had our two kids, one in August, 1981 and the other in November, 1986. Despite being busy with work and our family and just living, both of us were soon enamored with our gorgeous black dirt. Michael, a food lover, dug up a huge swath of the back yard and planted tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and oh so many herbs. Summer meals were freshly seasoned and because he was an avid canner, we had tomato sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and pesto all winter. I was all about the flowers, trees, grasses and shrubs. I planted decorative trees like redbuds and dogwoods, apple and pear trees and Japanese maples. Soon there were all kinds of grasses, along with flowering shrubs, spirea varieties, weigelas, forsythia, rhododendrons and azaleas, along with lilacs, potentillas and butterfly bushes. I wised up about flowers, putting annuals in pots and hanging baskets, with a few thrown into the ground for color amidst an accumulation of perennials. I figured out how to stagger blooms month by month so there would never be a time when the garden was void of interest. Both Michael and I had lots of failures as we developed our space, but we kept at it, enjoying our time together outside, creating a fruitful, relaxing haven that everyone enjoyed. He built a play structure out back which, after the kids had moved on to other activities, we turned into a giant planter with honeysuckle and climbing roses growing up the sides, creating a haven for birds. Aside from being in our home, the garden became the most cherished place in our lives.
In 2015, Michael was desperately ill, but despite his weakness, he plopped himself down amidst the herbs and advised our son in planting everything but his perennials which still, to this day, emerge every spring.
In early 2017, we knew he was nearing the end of his life. As he rested at home, I would go out and dig, leaving the perennial herbs alone, but creating what would become my pollinators’ garden. I knew I would never be the canner that he was and instead, wanted to turn that wonderful space, so full of life, into a place that would sustain all the vulnerable bees and butterflies threatened by climate change. I still plant a few tomato and pepper plants in his honor. Every time I dig in that earth, I feel an incredible rush of emotions that are the two of us together, somehow a part of that ground. One day, our children will spread our combined ashes there, where we belong after our many decades together working that soil. Following are photos of what the once barren space which was our yard looks like through time until today.
This sampling of all the years of growth doesn’t quite convey the total impression of the whole expanse. Maintenance of the garden is an ongoing chore. Despite my best efforts to limit weed growth by setting plants close together, the weeds come anyway. Plants die. A garden is an endless process which requires dedication and commitment. I’m not famous and Michael isn’t here. But isn’t this garden our joint legacy? When I’m gone, will anyone be willing to continue nurturing this place? If only the photos over decades are what remain when I’m gone, will they ensure the fact that we made an effort to beautify our little corner of the world? Sometimes when I’m out front working, people stop to tell me how much they enjoy going by my house, even making it a part of their regular walking route. Often I’ve seen others pause to take photos of a particular blossom that strikes their fancy. Is that already a legacy? If it all goes to weeds does that erase what happened before? Does any of this legacy business really matter anyway? I’m not sure how I feel about it. All I know is that one statement by a long-dead artist, whose work will always be remembered until humans disappear, made me think about something that’s usually never on my mind. I think there’s value in that simple fact.