We are currently in the midst of the few livable days of the year in Virginia. It’s glorious: not too hot, not too cold, and nary a mosquito in sight.
The garden has been waking up and the best part of every day this week (other than hammock time with Chloe and Gingersnap), has been the time I’ve spent outside yanking weeds out of my garden.
This morning my daughter was looking out the window at a whisky barrel planter on my deck, which holds a Golden Celebration rose. It’s a David Austin rose with extravagant, deep yellow blooms and an intoxicating scent of “wonderfully combined notes of Sauternes wine and strawberry.” At the moment, however, it just looks like bare, wiry stems.
“Oh, look Mama! There are beautiful flowers blooming in your planter,” my daughter exclaimed.
“Really?” I asked, trying to remember if I’d underplanted the rose with something else that I had forgotten about.
“Yes! They’re white, and lacy, and really pretty!”
I went over to the window to investigate…
Yep. Those are the same weeds I’ve been ruthlessly pulling out of my garden every morning. A good reminder that notions about what is beautiful and worthy are arbitrary constructs.
This redbud tipped over a few years ago. It’s now propped up by the fence. We were sure it wouldn’t survive, but every spring this stalwart tree surprises us with its gorgeous blooms.
I just wanted to send you this picture of the primula you brought me when you came to visit us years ago. It’s blooming again in the garden of our third house in Charlottesville, after making the trans-Atlantic voyage wrapped in a tissue in your handbag decades ago, after being transplanted from your garden in Scotland to your garden in Altrincham many, many more years before that. Every year when those faithful little flowers bloom so steadfastly and so generously, it makes me happy to think of you, and all the friends with whom I’ve shared it over the years. I’m sure those little divisions are blooming in gardens all across America right now. I imagine it’s still blooming in the first beautiful garden you planted in Dollar. I picture Colin as a baby in that great big pram, parked like a little prince amidst those flowers. I think of the small miracle that the American daughter of Korean immigrants could fall in love with and marry a boy from a third continent. In these days of “social distancing” and closing borders, the flowers remind me that enduring friendship and love are constants in our lives, even when things seem so unstable, and the world so dark…even when we are so far apart. I think of you both often with love and deepest affection.
The other day I had my final phone session with my “Be Well” health coach. This is a well-intentioned employer-sponsored program, which encourages you to scamper on a hamster wheel for a tiny handful of (taxable) hamster pellets. You are supposed to set two goals for the year – a health goal such as: “I will exercise for 30 minutes three times a week,” and a more holistic “fun” goal such as: “I will read three books a month.” My coach and I had been in touch throughout the year. He always seemed to call when I was in the midst of a catastrophic crisis. I suppose this isn’t so surprising, considering the fact that there seemed to be a fresh disaster every other day this year…In any case, he was well aware that I was far from meeting any of the goals we had made together.
“So, obviously I didn’t meet any of the goals I set back when I thought ‘working on music’ was something I was going to have the luxury to do this year. But I helped my sister weather a serious health crisis; I lost my beloved dog; I got diagnosed with cancer; I had two major surgeries; my kids got in a scary car accident on their second day of school, which totaled the car; and my dad is now facing his own serious health issues.”
There was a triumphant quaver in my voice as I concluded my speech: “But I still managed to be productive at work, to take care of my family, and I didn’t fall apart. Given the circumstances, I think that’s far more impressive than expanding my musical repertoire.”
I still didn’t get my handful of hamster pellets.
By March I was back home…
Our sweet dog Tallis had been sick for quite some time. We finally had to say goodbye.
Over spring break, we took a sleeper train to Chicago with our son.
In May I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In July I had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
Happy New Year, Everyone! Be well!
We had to clear out of our parking spots at UVA for graduation by 12, so I got to spend the afternoon playing in my garden. In the pouring rain.
This young man had his very last full day of high school.
His younger siblings celebrated the end of the week with a game of basketball.
In the pouring rain.
Hanging out with my beloved book group was a fitting end to a near perfect day.
We took the kids to the Alamo Cinema Drafthouse to see a movie.
“Anything but the Avengers!” my husband insisted. “I don’t ever want to see another superhero movie again.”
In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want…”
We did end up seeing a superhero movie after all.
RBG – the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg gives you hope for the world by showing that there is at least one actual superhero living among us here on earth.
That darn tree is still leaning precariously. Hoping to get it and the tree it’s using as a crutch taken down and away by the end of the week. I’m sad about the trees, but hopefully more sun will bring more flowers.
My husband took my daughter to her soccer game in Blacksburg this Saturday. I played hooky and spent the day pottering around in my garden, getting a few more patches of poison ivy rashes on my legs. Meanwhile, my son took himself to his own soccer game, but had to come home early, having badly sprained his ankle. He’ll have to be on crutches for a week or so.
While he convalesced indoors, I kept being drawn outside to admire the flowers. I’ve been especially enamored with the irises I planted a couple years ago. They’ve finally come into their own this year…
I was annoyed, however, to see that a bright orange interloper had popped up in the flower bed.
My daughter noticed it immediately and asked “What’s that orange flower?!”
“That’s an iris. They must have sent it by accident with my order.”
I was just about to tell her that I was going to yank it out and replant it in some obscure patch in the backyard when she gushed, “I LOVE it! It’s SO cute!” So, I guess it’s staying…
What’s NOT staying is the huge oak tree, pictured upright just beyond the orange iris in the previous picture. Today it looks like this:
Yesterday, I drove home from work through a powerful storm. It was late and I was so thoroughly exhausted that I somehow managed to pull into the driveway without even noticing that the tree had fallen into another huge oak tree, whose top sheared off and took down the fence with it, and fell into the road, blocking traffic coming from the other direction. When I came through the door, the kids came running up from the basement, where they had been cowering in fear.
“Thank goodness you’re home!!! Did you see the tree?!” my daughter asked breathlessly.
“Tree? What tree?”
“YOU DIDN’T NOTICE THE TREE?!”
She had to drag me to the window to point out the obvious.
We sang in the choir all together for the last time. During the service there was a big, mushy send-off for the graduating seniors, including my son, who is heading to college in New York this fall. I was reduced to a quivering mass of exposed nerves, tears, and snot right up front and center in the choir loft. I’m sure I stuck out like a gaudy orange flower, and not in a cute way either.
But…we’re still standing.
Bodnant Garden is an impossibly beautiful 80 acre garden in Wales. It is probably most famous for its Laburnum Arch. We missed its peak, and could only imagine its splendor in May and June:
We didn’t have to imagine the splendor of the rest of the gardens…
The hydrangeas, especially, were glorious:
We ended our visit to Bodnant with an epic game of tag on the perfect lawn:
A couple years ago when my dad was turning 80, my sister offered to take him anywhere in the world to celebrate the milestone. She thought he might want to visit a country he had never been to such as Italy or England. He said he wanted to go back to Korea. My sister and I accompanied my parents back to their native land for one last visit.
Our home base was Seoul, but early on in the trip we drove two and a half hours south to Yesan-gun in Chungcheong province to visit my father’s last living sibling. As we drove deeper and deeper into the countryside, I asked my dad to tell me about his hometown. Of the place where he spent his childhood he had this to say: There is absolutely no reason why you would have ever heard of it.
We drove past endless rice paddies and greenhouses until we finally pulled into a narrow alley. My father’s brother who inherited the family farm built a more modern house in the place where the old hanok used to be…
His widow (second from the left) came out to greet us. My dad’s older brother and his wife (in the middle) were also waiting for us at the house.
I didn’t notice it at the time, but at some point during that visit, my aunt gave my mother a bunch of gingko nuts from the huge sack of them she had harvested from her own trees. I imagine they were from trees that were part of the landscape of my dad’s childhood. My parents brought a handful of them back to their home in Arlington, Virginia.
Fast forward a year…Last autumn I was telling my parents about the “Pratt Gingko” planted in 1860 near the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. When it’s in its full glory, it is a magical experience to stand under the leaves as they rustle in the wind and float down to the ground, which becomes draped in a shimmering coverlet of its golden leaves.
“Did you know your dad planted some gingko trees in the backyard?” my mother asked when I had finished rhapsodizing about the tree. He had planted the seeds from that handful of gingkos they brought back from his family’s farm.
My sister brought my parents down to Charlottesville this weekend for a visit. My sister and I were going to the Virginia Festival of the Book and thought for sure my dad, who loves books more than anyone else I know, would want to join us.
“I’m not going to go to the book festival,” he announced, “I brought the gingko trees to plant for you. Show me where you want me to put them.”
“How about in a row all along the back fence of the paddock?” I suggested, imagining the vision of golden radiance I would one day see from my kitchen window.
“Well, that would be ok,” he replied gently, “But…no one will be able to see them there.”
I had given the Wrong Answer: “Let’s put them wherever you think would be best, Dad!”
I watched my dad struggling to break through the tough soil in the part of the (FRONT) yard where he chose to plant the trees. I hovered around uselessly, then went to join my mother on the front porch where we sat and watched.
When she saw that he was having trouble standing up, she nudged me and said, “Go! Help your dad! He can’t get up!”
I ran over to him and reached out my hand.
“Can I help you up, Dad?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to embarrass him.
He wouldn’t take my proffered hand and told me he just needed a moment to rest.
Reluctantly, I left to make it on time to the workshop my sister and I were attending at the Festival. I only had time to urge my daughter to get her grandfather a glass of ice water before I had to drive away.
Later, my mother and I walked around the area where my dad had planted the seven baby gingko trees he had grown from seeds. My mama, the drama queen, always ready to devastate her audience with a toss of her head or a tragic line sighed and said, “As I watched him planting the trees, I realized these really are the last days of his life.” In the end, she told me that she and my son had to help him back to his feet and that my son took over digging the holes…
“One day, when the trees are grown,” she said as we inspected the tiny little saplings, “Your children will remember planting them with their grandpa.”
Pssst! P.S.: My sister Annabelle Kim recently published her novel Tiger Pelt, a Kirkus Best Books of 2015, partly inspired by stories my dad told us about his childhood. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, & Indiebound!
The primula my mother-in-law brought from Scotland to England to America is blooming again. This humble little flower made its way to me from across the ocean wrapped in a napkin stashed in my mother-in-law’s handbag. It’s held a spot of honor in every garden of each of the three houses we’ve lived in here in Charlottesville. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve divided this sentimental favorite to share with friends…
In the evening I picked up my daughter and three of her friends after their second ever quartet practice. I laughed during the entire car ride home as the young musicians discussed their plans to get rich busking on the Downtown Mall.
“Whose case should we use to collect money?”
“Definitely mine,” said the cellist, “It’s the biggest.”
“Yeah, mine is way too small,” agreed the flautist, “It would fill up with money way too fast and we’d have to keep emptying it all the time, which would be a pain.”
Dream big, girls. Dream big!
Later that evening we had family movie night.
We’ve been watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy over the course of several weeks. Though Tolkien wrote his great epic in the 30s and 40s about hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards, it’s uncanny how many parallels can be drawn between the trilogy’s war between the forces of good and evil and current events. Trump, Daesh, the refugee crisis, the environmental crisis…they’re all in there. I found this gorgeous edition for my daughter who has only read The Hobbit, and still has the pleasure of reading the trilogy ahead of her. The rest of us are lined up to re-read them when she’s done!
MarieBette Café & Bakery and their brioches feuilletées are one of the many reasons I love living in Charlottesville:
There are only about two and a half days in any given year when I want to be outside, and Saturday was one of them!
My husband took the kids to play frisbee golf:
…while I had fun getting my hands dirty in the garden! I transplanted a few things, planted some seeds…
and finally finished the oyster shell path I began last year! It only took three more 50 lb bags of crushed oyster shells and the last dregs of my will to carry on. If you see me hobbling around clutching my back like an old woman, you’ll know why.
Winter Jewels Hellebores are one of the very first plants I put in my new garden. These flowers are so great! They bloom crazy early and then continue on for months, untouched by deer, insects, late snows and other gardening catastrophes. They self seed and are easy to divide too.
In the evening we all met up again for dinner at Smoked, a bustling barbecue restaurant in the newly opened Piedmont Place in Crozet. There was a rather long wait for a table, so we spent a lovely hour at Over the Moon Bookstore.
I’ve been trapped in a loveless marriage with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall for what seems like an eternity, but has really probably been less than a year. I thought I’d step out on Wolf Hall to have a meaningless fling with Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl, but I’m not enjoying that book nearly as much as I thought I would. So now I’m condemned to slog through TWO books before starting some of the books I bought at Over the Moon. I was discussing this with the bookseller and she told me she didn’t understand this at all:
“Life is too short. I give a book ten pages at the most, and if I’m not hooked, I just stop reading it.”
Do you feel obliged to finish a book once you’ve started? Even if you hate it?
Spotted on my way to book group brunch…
Did I mention how much I love living in Charlottesville?
This month my book group read my sister’s novel Tiger Pelt! I artfully posed some copies on the table only to realize with bitter disappointment once I got home – you can’t see the books!!!
You may not be able to spot the books in the photo, but you can find your own copy of Annabelle Kim’s Tiger Pelt online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. It’s a great pick for book clubs! No loveless marriages here…I promise it will move and inspire you. Readers of this blog may recognize some of the events in Tiger Pelt, because the boy’s story is inspired by my father’s life story. If you read it, I would love to hear what you think.
After I got back home, I began to redecorate for spring:
My daughter and I gave her guinea pigs’ pad a new look for spring too:
I feel that it’s still missing a certain je ne sais quoi…A seagrass wallpaper to pull in a little more texture? Some ambient lighting perhaps? Some cushions for a pop of color? A chaise longue in the corner? Nothing but the finest for these round-the-clock industrial poop factories: