20 June 2009

Inside Memory: Timothy Findley, My Father, and the Memory Garden

"People can only be found in what they do."
  Timothy Findley, October 30, 1930-June 21, 2002.

As we roam toward solstice/midsummer, I'm flashed with a bit of elegaic, bittersweet memory. Last week, June 11, was the 4th anniversary of my father's death from Alzheimer's, one of the most hideous of diseases. Tomorrow, June 21, is the 7th anniversary of my favourite author's death: Canadian novelist and playwright Timothy Findley. 

I was very sad when Findley died. I'd written my masters' thesis on his fiction, and had correspondence and several meetings with him over the years. It says a great deal about his work that I continue to love it even after having studied it somewhat exhaustively for several years at Acadia University. In fact...I think it might be time for a Findley read-a-thon here. 

What's this got to do with gardening? A lot, actually. For Timothy Findley, I planted the first shrub in honour of someone who had passed: at the time, a rosebush, and then one for his partner to keep his company. However, I don't trust rosebushes to be longlived (except for rugosas), so I decided to plant a tree instead. So for Findley and Bill Whitehead, his partner of nearly 50 years, I put in a Japanese Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). 

Findley wrote a great deal about memory in his various works of fiction and nonfiction. The first of two memoirs is called Inside Memory, and remains one of my favourite of his writings. We all use memory daily for a thousand myriad things, of course. Until we can't. Like an Alzheimer patient. So for them, we plant forget-me-nots. Not surprisingly, there are literally thousands of Myosotis around our place, and they're still festooning the yard with a sea of blue lace reminders as we head towards summer. 

It's funny how some plants instantly remind us of other people. In my case, they remind me and I plant their plants in their memory and honour. For my mother's twin sister, I have lots of portulaca every summer. She loved their brilliant colours, their silky petals and fleshy leaves. I just have to see the word portulaca and I see my aunt. 

People can influence us in subtle ways we don't realize until years later. Both my grandmothers were gardeners; my father's mother a pragmatic kitchen-gardener, with beans and strawberries, sugar maple and apple trees all to help feed her family of five children. My mother's mother was more of an ornamental gardener, and there are plants from her garden that carry forth into mine (indirectly, because she died when I was a teenager and not yet a compulsive gardener). Nannie would have been fascinated by the new colours of Johnny-Jump-Ups that are available today, and she might have had some. But for me it's the traditional colours that freely seed around my garden that remind me most of her.  

Perhaps my huge love for poppies comes also from her, because I remember silky-petalled poppies, nestled in among exuberant plantings of lupins, in her Berwick, NS, garden. So it's small wonder that all kinds of poppies find their homes here in our garden. 

I began planting shrubs in memory of people, of cats we'd loved and lost, of people I never met but who were dear to people who are dear to me. Then my former mother-in-law, a woman I loved and admired, died, her body riddled with cancers. Marilyn loved butterflies, yellow roses, sunflowers, all kinds of flowers. So I drew these loves together and amalgamated them into an entire memory garden, well populated by butterflies and bees and birds and other living things. 

One of the plants in that garden is a pink-flowered potentilla shrub, for those who have been claimed by breast cancer. 

For my friend Ladny, who had befriended and rescued many cats and humans alike, a linden tree is growing in the back yard.

Brain cancer has become a noticeable blip on my radar in recent months. A colleague's best friend succumbed to it. A friend's young nephew is fighting it. A former professor and friend died of the disease in February. My favourite musician, David Cook, lost his brother on May 2; and ran a 5 km race to raise funds for ABC2, Accellerate Brain Cancer Cure, the very next day.

I can't run marathons, but can donate to them. And can plant trees in honour of heroes of all kinds. So for Hilary, and Janet, and Adam, and all the others...a flowering apple tree.

The June my dad passed away was a harrowing one, and I turned time and again to the garden for comfort and peace and a kind of support. I always feel like Dad is right there when I'm puttering, cracking jokes about me and the mint plantation I inadvertently created years ago; commenting on my lack of talent in growing tomatoes, where he excelled. And the June he died, my blue poppy bloomed for the first time: on Father's Day.

This year, the weather or fates or something conspired to have it bloom on the anniversary of Dad's death. And I was home, fighting that virus I had last week, so I got to see it both preparing to open and in its pure jubilant glory. It's still flowering, as the secondary buds are opening, and it makes my heart lighter to watch it.

The whole yard is now a memory garden, I realize in walking around it. And I'm all right with that. It brings me solace. I hope it brings solace to those who visit, by blog or in person.


  1. Hi Jodi~~ THIS is the place that was covered in snow just a short time ago? Wow. Absolutely gorgeous!

    My grandmother died in the early 80s before much was known about Alzheimer's. The doctors thought it was dementia but who knows? When I remember how she loved plants I often wonder what she would think of all the tantalizing plant introductions available today.

    I think it's more than uncanny the way the calendar has aligned your days.Miraculous seems more fitting. Wonderful, well written post, Jodi.

  2. Jodi, Lump in throat as I read about your blue poppy. Lovely post.

  3. Hi Jodi, It does take a long time to get used to the idea that our loved ones are gone. Planting trees, shrubs and flowers in honor of their memory is a fine thing to do.

    Poppies remind me of my Mom. She had a huge bed of them and pulled them out by the hands full. I have a difficult time growing them. Wouldn't you know.

    I hope you aren't too sad remembering your loved ones that have passed. I am sure they are admiring the garden that is full of their memory.

  4. A very touching post, I feel the same way, so many plants in the garden are constant reminder of people and friends we love and those no longer with us. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. jodi, my dad passed and my mother-in-law lives, so far, with alzheimer's. thanks for a touching post.

  6. I've told you for a long time that a visit to your beautiful garden, even by blog, always feels like a vacation. :) Thank you for sharing your memories with us too, jodi -- I love the idea of a garden of special plantings for commemorate those who've gone before us.

  7. Jodi:
    The tingle as tears well in the corner of my eyes..... Findley! No need to say more. I miss his writing with each passing year, and just finished re-reading Inside Memory a week ago!

    My Father succumbed to cancers (brain, stomach, lymph nodes) what will be five years this December. I recently planted a Purple leaf Katsura, and after reading this post have re-dedicated it in his honour. (His birthday would have been the 4th of June)

    Gardens are a wonderful way of keeping the memory of loved ones alive. Thank you for this eloquent reminder of how one keeps the memory of others alive and blooming!

  8. Thanks Jodi, I very much enjoyed this post. It always amazes me how scents and flowers so vividly conjure memories of people , events and places.

  9. What a wonderful, wonderful post. For years I've been planting things in memory of friends, and have a beautiful white camellia, 'Sea Foam', in memory of a friend who also died of brain cancer. (I'm sorry that you and those around you have had to face this too). With my Mother just gone a little over a year now, perennials from her garden are now filling in spots in mine - Tiger lilies and siberian irises and perennial sweet pea - they mean more and more to me with each passing day. I have a dogwood planted in memory of a dog with the same name - and so many others. The Findley quote was just so perfect for this quote - and for gardeners. Thank you!

  10. What a lovely and touching post. I have many plants in my garden that remind me of the people who gave them to me or of people who had them in their gardens when I was younger. When my father died three years ago, I started a white garden in a section of our property that would be dedicated to him. Your post reminds us that gardens can be a place of healing.

    Always Growing

  11. Jodi, a truly heartwaming post. And as I was reading it, the thought kept running through my mind that I would like to know so much more about your garden and your loved ones. What a beginning for a book!

    Gardens for us are a place of solace and where better to have visual reminders of the people we loved. The lovely blooms make us smile, negate some of the sadness we feel, and give us comfort all at the same time.

    I am happy that your blue poppy blooms right on cue. while not one to really believe in signs, I know there are some things we can't reason away.

    Don't be sad today, but know that your father is sending you a smile and a hug.

  12. A touching post, beautifully crafted, jodi. My heart lives like yours through thoughtful choices ... my garden also reflects memories of those I love. Summer hugs for a bountiful garden and beautiful sustaining memories through the long winter's night.

  13. I can't think of a more beautiful way to remember those who are no longer with us. Your blue poppy is amazing and seems to know just when to bloom.
    Hollyhocks will always and forever remind me of my grandmother and then my own mother, who also died of Alzheimers.

  14. So beautifully said and what a wonderful garden of memories you've created....gail

  15. A beautiful post, both floral and pictorial. I know what you means - Alzheimer's claimed my mother.

    You could probably find that post of mine by Googling ``Authorblog A is for Alzheimer's.''

  16. Such a beautiful post, Jodi. The more I garden, the more I realize how much a garden means to us. You've described a perfect way to preserve the memories of those who have meant so much to us. And I think I finally understand why you have such beautiful blue poppies--there is a special angel or spirit looking over it.

    Thank you, too, for posting this today. I am fortunate to have both my parents still living, though Dad is more frail than he used to be. I spent part of last evening with him for Father's Day--taking a tour of his magnificent vegetable garden. You have helped remind me to appreciate these small but special moments while I can.

  17. beautiful post. that you would plant in remembrance of them gives roots to their memory and gives you stories to tell as you walk through the garden. your pics are amazing. Congrats on POTD.

  18. What a lovely and inspiring post. I'm so glad I came across it.

  19. This is a wonderful post of a fantastically beautiful garden and the memories planted therin. What a great idea, to remember loved ones with plants and trees so that you can visit them every day.

    So worthy of a POTD mention.

  20. "What can I add to what's already been said?" she typed as she wiped away a tear.

  21. What a beautiful post. Flowers are so evocative of friends and family. I have so many plants which remind me of my mother and of my grandfather. A walk in the garden is a walk into very happy memories.

  22. I have long been a reader of your blog as a fellow NS gardener. However this entry forced me to respond as it struck a common chord. I too love Timothy Findley's writing -- his quote is so apropos-- and feel similarly about the plants in our garden. Thank you, Jodi, for expressing yourself so articulately. I'm going to put 'Inside Memory' on my reading list.

  23. ardentgardener08 April, 2011 10:08

    Many years ago I showed my perennial garden to an elderly aunt. Both of us were born in Holland. Her mother, and my paternal grandmother, was known as “Opoe”. The last time I saw Opoe I was nine, and I don't remember her garden. Yet when my aunt saw my garden, she exclaimed, “That's exactly like Opoe's garden!” (my translation). I had incorporated both the varieties and the wild look of my grandmother without knowing it, so it seems we can remember our loved ones even unconsciously.


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