Laughter with Tears


In June a few years back, dear friend Ann Margaret Lewis arrived on a Friday night later than expected. I stood at the end of my drive, cell phone in hand, talking her in down the dark two-lane road. As she came around the second bend she flashed her high-beams across the distance and I confirmed her approach with a near squeal of delight. Her long drive and my eager anticipation ended as we embraced each other in the driveway. It was very good to feel her hugs and, as usual, I welled up with joyful tears.

My friend drove more than four hours to stay with me over Father’s Day weekend. Her husband and son would celebrate Sunday night upon her return. The purpose for her visit was to attend to her parents’ grave site, another two hours northeast.

A late night of wine, cheese, and shrimp made for a slow morning on Saturday. Shortly before noon we headed for the cemetery. For over an hour we traveled along the Interstates and talked of books, writing, and manuscripts. As a gardener who writes I am amazed at how much there is to learn about the crafting of words. Questioning Ann, I listened carefully to each lesson she shared.

Exiting the highway, Ann maneuvered through the congested traffic of two and four lane roads. I was unsettled by all the cars and trucks but she was unruffled. This was where she grew up, in Waterford, not far from Pontiac, northeast of Detroit. My anxiety was apparent, but Ann has grown accustomed to my quirks, and drove on with assurance of knowing the way. I was greatly relieved when we arrived at the cemetery—the open spaces soothed my traffic rattled nerves.

Cemeteries induce a sense of well being for me. As a child, accompanying my grandmother to the family’s plot was comforting. She would cut back sod from markers, pull weeds, and remove metal cones of dead flowers. My job was wiping off the grass clippings and dirt from the marble headstones. Grandmother would share memories as we worked. After we planted the marigolds and salvia she would draw quiet to pray while I wandered off among the headstones of unknown ancestors of other families. I would squat before grave markers and mimic my grandmother by pulling weeds, or wipe off leaves and clippings from headstones as I had done for our family. With my finger I traced the letters carved in the stone and tried to sound out the names. Eventually grandmother would call for me and I would say good-bye to all the silent souls and run back to her, to the land of the living.

Ann stopped at the cemetery office for the rules on planting around the plots. We drove to her parents’ graves and pulled hand tools and plants from the trunk. Soon we were both on our knees cutting back sod, pulling up weeds, and wiping down the pink marble headstone. I placed the plugs of marigolds and blue salvia within the small garden, and Ann planted them in place. After sprinkling a few forget-me-not seeds, Ann watered it all in. The grave site was freshened and showed that the deceased were still well loved.

We stepped back for a silent prayer. Ann began to grieve, but I began to feel such joy that I couldn’t contain myself. I put my arm around my crying friend, and instead of words of sympathy I filled the air with words of blessedness and gift. I’ve never known the kind of love that would produce that type of grief, but I have known the type of love that would produce that kind of joy.

Through the depth of her grief came the reality of her love. The fullness of what her parents had given her was evident in the woman she had become. My joy came from recognizing the connection of that eternal gift and her ability to carry it into future generations. There I stood beside and before the ultimate gift from God—the capacity of love.

As we laughed and cried arm-in-arm I told her parents they had done a real fine job.

Image by Michael Gaida at


A Forced Simplicity of Gardens


I wrote this a while back when disability first began to set in. It’s a perennial favorite.

Over the past few weeks several friends came to my yard to dig-up flowers and though it felt like they had come en masse to the gardens, they hadn’t. In groups of two’s and three’s they came, they dug, and they left. All were delighted with their trunks and back seats filled to capacity with buckets and boxes of ferns, hostas, anemones, variegated loosestrife, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs, Asiatic, oriental and day- lilies, iris, coreopsis, rose campion, ground covers, vines, and the Good Lord knows what else.

They were all very happy, and I was pleased to have shared what had brought me joy for over twenty years. That was until I turned around after the final digger drove away. My gardens were now patches of weeds, random stalks of unwanted perennials, and potholes.

The last woman who came to dig had offered to help me with gardening during the summer. She reneged, choosing to work the gardens at a Catholic retirement community instead. I understood her change of heart and saw her volunteering on their grounds as being similar to my work for God at the retreat center.  I was delighted that the elderly would see God’s beauty as the result of her efforts. But honestly, I was disappointed that I would be left behind. My hope for a friend’s weekly visits and help over the summer vanished.

For those of you who know me know I cry easily—when I see you after a long absence, when you go away again, when I am filled with joy, sadness, frustration, or deep prayer I cry. So it’s no surprise that I welled up with tears when I looked at what was left of my gardens.

As I walked to the shed I smiled as I imagined Scotty from Star Trek reducing the flowers that remained into bits of electrons and transporting them to all of you via the internet. Then, poof, clumps of soil land on your desks with greens flopping all over the keyboard and folders. And my accompanying message…Sorry, and you’re welcome.

Unlatching the double doors of the shed I pulled out the self-propelled lawn mower. Determinedly I walked it to the front yard, turned the key to start the engine, took a deep breath and moved it into the gardens. Working around the potholes, I reduced to mulch what plants remained.  I wasn’t sure if it was harder physically or emotionally…didn’t matter…I had to clean up the mess as best I could.

And then it was finished. And I didn’t want to feel sad anymore. And I didn’t want to look up at what remained. I shut-off the mower and turned full round.

There before me stood the basic structure of my gardens; the shrubs and ornamental trees. With all the perennials stripped away, the simplicity and beauty supported itself. I discovered that the landscape was only adorned by the smaller things that added texture and color to the space. All the pretty stuff had been nice, but they had depended on a good foundation.

I was content as I cleaned the debris from the mower before putting it back in the shed. It’s beginning to feel good to simplify and get back to the basics of life.

Image at

Free of Falling

Image from

St. Benedict Monastery where I am an Oblate is in Oxford, Michigan. The location of the monastery was chosen because of the land; glaciated hill country rising nearly 1,000 feet above the Great Lakes.

Image by Brothers of St. Benedict Monastery.

It is the second highest point in Michigan, and on a clear day you could see Detroit fifty miles away.

The sixty foot wall of glass that is the south side of the sanctuary and behind the tabernacle and altar reveals a breathtaking view of the sky—a nod to eternity if you will. From any one of the monk’s stalls the heavens are the dominate scene. As I sat in the chapel and looked into the clouds I felt weightless, as if all of earth and its burdens had fallen away.

Image by Brothers of St. Benedict Monastery.

One Sunday, looking at the sky as I prayed, my focus was drawn to the distant specks of Canada geese in their orderly V-formation heading north. A few moments later at closer range a single hawk moved into my view. It skillfully maneuvered the wind currents with only slight movements of its tail or wings, floating and gliding gracefully. Science and aerodynamics aside, I am always delighted by the flight and fancy of birds.

An unexpected motion at the top of the glass wall caught my attention. Six little brown sparrows were perched on the roofs ledge and leaping off. Like mini rockets, with tiny necks extended and wings held tight against their bodies, they plummeted.

My heart beat quickened as I watched the little brown birds’ reckless abandon. As they leapt from the very precipice of peril, they picked up speed, plunging earthward. But my fears were not theirs…nor were my fears—that the little sparrows wouldn’t be able to turn away in time and go splat against the rocks—grounded in truth.

Just moments later, there they were wings wide in flight, navigating upward almost as fast as they had rocketed downward. Once more they came to perch on the roofs ledge, seeming to mock me at being afraid for them.

These little skydivers, exhilarated by their leaping, repeated their dare-devil free-fall. I imagined their confidence as they leapt; an unconscious trust in their ability to fly. Their mastering the gift of what they were designed to be kept them safe. They could play and soar and dance on the very Breath of God.


Pinched Back

Platycodon grandiflorus

There are several perennial flowers that bloom more abundantly when pinched back in late spring and again after about 4 weeks in early summer.

Those flowers are of the type called ‘terminal bloomers’, meaning they flower on the ends of stems. Perennials in my yard that are terminal bloomers and trimmed back include mum, sedum, platycodon (balloon flowers), and the shrubby Annabel hydrangea.

Because these plants bloom on the ends of stems, by pinching back the tips the plant sends out additional lateral (side) stems and thereby creates more terminal ends for blooms.

The other day, after yet another rain, I saw from the kitchen window how leggy some of the plants had become. I had failed to finish the task of pinching back started several weeks ago and now, with all the rains the platycodon and mum were getting long and floppy—the stems soft from rapid growth due to the warm rains.

My arthritic body ached—which was the reason I had delayed the chore for so long—but knew what had to be done, and it was such a small chore. As soon as there was a break in the rain I slipped on my boots and grabbed the nippers, heading out to the garden.

It felt good to be in the lushness of an early summer garden, and to enjoy the birds singing and tree frogs chirping.

Good for about 7 minutes!

My back and knees began to hurt so I rushed through trimming the remaining plants. Being careless, I cut several stems too far, and having done so knew the flowering would be inhibited rather than enhanced.

Closing the shed and heading for the house I prayed…

Dear Lord, I ask that in my own frustrations of who I am as I mature, trying to grow too fast through the storms of aging, that you do not prune me with such reckless abandon.

As I dried the nippers and pulled off boots I knew Our Lord would prune with love, attentive to the flowering to come.

Image by Walter Stern at

Heritage in a Lilac Bush


My great-grandparents emigrated from Italy not long after they were married; my great-grandmother had a three month old son wrapped against her chest and the oldest girl was still in nappies. Another war had broken out in their homeland, and she had known nothing but fighting since her own childhood in the late 1850’s. They left with only as much as they could carry.

Headed for Canada, they were to meet family, who had acquired farm land in Hawtrey, Ontario, to be divided once they arrived. Somehow along the way they changed their last name—dropping the “i” for fear of mafia associations to Angotti.  It was in Hawtrey that great-grandma Angott planted the slip of a lilac she had carried across the ocean—it was from the bush that grew next to her bedroom window of her parent’s home.

In the early 1900’s the Angott family immigrated to the United States by way of Detroit. Once more a slip of a lilac was smuggled and then planted at the house on Oakwood just north of River Rouge. The new home had three lots; a two-story brick house was situated on one and to the east were the gardens.

My grandmother, Margaret, would bring me along on her weekly visits to see her mother and sister. It was here that I remember my great-grandma Angott, and my great-aunt Rose.

Great-grandma never spoke, nor do I remember her standing. The small burgundy velvet-brocade chair seemed too large for her petite frame. Her dark olive complexion was wrinkled and creased from years of laboring outdoors, and in her arthritic liver-spotted hands a crystal blue rosary always laid. Looking through her thick glasses she would follow my every move, her eyes freakishly magnified by the lenses. I can’t say that I loved her; to me she was strange and inanimate. I was told she was a loving mother when my grandmother was a child, and for this reason alone I would pet her unmoving hands and smile into her wide-eyed gaze.

I was very young during those visits, and remember being sent outdoors to “Go play in the gardens.” Trying to contain my excitement at being liberated, I would do my best to walk slowly and lady-like through the red and white porcelain kitchen and out the back door. At the foot of the porch steps I would burst into a run down the perennial gardens’ paths. I was free to do as I pleased but the garage and equally large shed at the back were off limits. If the top of the Dutch door to the shed was left open, I would pull myself up on its narrow shelf and peer in at the bins of pots, racks of tools and chandeliers of tomato cages.

From a child’s eye the gardens were grand and filled with wonder. The dwarf apple trees along the back fence were Espalier. The island of peony flowers with their tufted gold centers bobbled with the slightest breeze. The dozens of song birds unafraid of my presence darted about and splashed in the three-tiered fountain.

Aunt Rose loved fragrant flowering shrubs and bordered her gardens with them. The seasonal scents of late spring included the French lilacs in white, periwinkle, and deep magenta. But the lilac I loved best was the delicate pink one brought from Italy—it flowered two weeks after the French had spent their beauty.

Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.

My grandmother had brought a slip of the Italian lilac to her yard when she married. This tall and tightly clumped shrub was planted off the kitchen door and the fragrance in early June was dizzying.

I was nearly forty and finally had a home of my own when I cut a slip of the family lilac. It was the year my grandmother would die. I made the two hour drive back to Detroit, to Ferndale and her abandoned house on Hazlehurst. Working quickly I nipped a few shoots and dug a root, shoved them into a water-filled milk carton, and headed out before anyone knew I was there.

Only two cuttings took root, but that was all I needed. One lilac grows along the east fence of my yard, the other—nearly two stories high—grows beside my upstairs bedroom window.

This week it is blooming. Its delicate pink panicles, drooping over at the tip, fill the air with heavenly perfume. And in the night, with memories mingled in the scent, “I breathed my soul back into me.”

Note: Italian Lilac is not a species name. I’ve never found another lilac like this one, nor has anyone come forward to classify or propagate this beauty.

Image by unknown artist at (2013)