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Mary Lou Takes On the Suburban Lot

by Kristin Nord

June ranks among my favorite times in Mary Lous garden. Despite a full teaching load at a university in New Haven, her borders already are well-tended, and moving into an intense pink and yellow phase that will usher in summer.
     I take in the smell of peonies and honeysuckle on a recent visit -- old fashioned scents that  remind me this 3/4 acre patch of earth was once part of a local  farm. When Mary Lou and her husband, Bob, bought the property, the area, known as Possum Ridge, had already been targeted by the local developers, and was rapidly being transformed into multiple streets of split level houses.  Mary Lou had grown up a mile away on a country road with hundreds of acres of woodlands to explore outside her doorstep.  She hated the way her new property felt -- flat and exposed to traffic and noise -- and she set out to screen it in and create something special.
     She began simply...trees and bushes and perennials from her fathers country garden (he planted in neat rows, she recalls)  offering the framework for the garden paths and spaces that would follow.  Wildflowers, plants from dumpsters,  fledglings from abandoned lots, all were given a home; as was a stand of rhododendrons, some tree-size by now, that came from the days when the local bank offered free plants for opening checking accounts.
     We kept opening them, she explains, amused as she looks back on it. But of course we didnt have a lot of money when we first got married -- so we took whatever we could for free and added slowly to it..
      Because she is also a  ceramist and a sculptor -- it was only a matter of  time before her studies of color and design would begin to creep in: her visual sweeps grew more expansive,  her color combinations more dramatic.  Over 30 years, the garden became a place of sculpture and trellises and curvilinear walks and walls; new-fangled and old fashioned --  a Josephs Coat  pink and yellow rose conversing with a pink and yellow honeysuckle, for instance -- plant matches that played color off against color.
     Spending a day with Mary Lou during the growing season is not unlike following a human backhoe around. She is slightly built, with brown eyes and chestnut hair, and though shes a few years past 50 she often looks like a teenager in work clothes. On a recent morning she was determined to divide mature beds of hybrid, Asiatic lilies and daylillies and extend a border where a pond was being built. By the time I arrived she had already dug up and moved one of those checking account rhododendrons.  Growth can be a gift, but at the moment its become a nuisance. 
      In the midst of all this fevered activity were plants from generations of  her family: her grandmothers Cottage Street peonies,  her mothers rosebud azalea, a  fathers fiery red poppies playing off against a stand of  silvery gray birch trees.  I pass the tree peonies opposite a wall of velvety magenta clematis;  and stone walls, some built by her father, others, built by her firstborn son.  Then the lawn opens up to an expanse of lush beds that begin with a red purple smoke bush and its underbed of intense yellow.  We take a seat on the far side, on a rickety bench in the shade, ingesting color while the cool greens around us envelop us like a quilt.
     This resting place is new -- and has been emerging within the last few years, along with her apple and peach trees, which she hopes will bear fruit soon. She and her daughter, Chiara, now grown but still the official flower picker in the family, often sit in this space when she visits.  Much of the garden has required brutally intense work -- sunrise-to-sunset labor, but labor that was the only peace she could get in the years that immediately followed her son, Robs, death in 1990.  Moving dirt, holding the plants and shaping borders, even physical exhaustion, couldnt guarantee sleep, she said, but offered physical proof, like the ceramic plates she forced herself to fashion, that she was accomplishing ...something.
     In time she began to respond to the richness she found outside on those spring and summer mornings: earth-toned  vases and plates first, with precisely carved overlays of flowers;  then vases, teacups and saucers that began to suggest and personify flowers and foliage;  and eventually abstract disks of color that captured the shapes and movement of the growing season. Dancing hydrangeas --  Musical Morning Glories, I thought one day, as I looked up at Mary Louies  rich blues and mauves and yellows mounted on the walls of her studio.
     This summer she and her younger son, Michael,  have returned to the stone work that Rob and his grandfather began some years ago.  They are fashioning a pond that will have a river of rocks swirling to one side of it ...rocks from family, as well as from friends, and from years of travel. If assembled at one of Mary Lous festive dinner parties theyd make for an exotic mix. Shed seat the Arizona geologist next to a small-town New England bard; the Vermont marble quarrier  next to the Northwestern Connecticut ironworker; throw in the Tuscan stone mason --  and see what happens.
     She takes me to visit Robs grave at a little woodland cemetery, which I have come to see is as much a part of her garden as the borders four miles away. The grave is  framed by a red-purple weeping beech, a bleeding heart, and a bed of daffodils that once bloomed under Robs bedroom window. A blanket of lambs ears, soft to the touch and well-tended, shields the spot where the coffin was laid. Mary Lou has begun to look for just the right slab of granite to serve as a marker, one that will echo the shape and feel of the wall built at the site nine years ago this summer.
     As a child, Mary Lou would pack a sandwich and hike deep in the woods;  shed sit by a pond for hours watching frogs, listening to birds, identifying butterflies.  I have to think that when her son died, she knew that  she would have to go into that darkened place if she were to survive, trusting that world of growth would lead her to safety again.
     As physicians and clergy begin to look at how gardens restore us, they speak of our need to listen in silence; to notice things in detail, and finally, in our struggle to make connections that lead to insights, and eventually, to wisdom.  Mary Lou has learned much of this intuitively -- and the hard way, through extraordinary suffering. But now I look at her resting places;  and at the way her flower combinations grow ever freer. In the midst of grief, which is part of her and comes and goes, there is the resounding presence of the woods-loving woman, in her funny straw hat, responding to beauty, making art for the rest of us to enjoy.

Photo: Mary Lou and son Michael take a break from their pond-building labors.

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