“You know, mom, you can’t be a writer and have a good garden. You have to make a choice,” my eleven-year-old son said. At the time, we were walking together through Hidcote Garden, a magnificent Arts and Crafts garden in England where we traveled to celebrate my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and completion of breast cancer treatment. He said it to me, a writer and gardener, as I swooned over the garden’s beauty, its beds overflowing with purple alliums, hot pink peonies, flaming orange Asiatic lilies, white foxgloves, silver lambs’ ears, and white roses, all jumbled on each other. I could never match this lushness in my garden in New Jersey having neither England’s climate nor a highly skilled staff. But I wondered if I could capture its beauty in my journal as I walked along.
My first instinct was to argue the point with my son and tell him about the many writers who gardened, like Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville West, and Edith Wharton, to name a few. But upon further thought, he was right. When I work in my garden, I’m not writing; when I’m at my desk, my gardens go neglected.
I began writing long before I started gardening, having grown up in New York City in apartments and small houses, each with a patch of weedy grass, gangly shrubs, and the occasional patch of daffodils in spring or marigolds in summer. My earliest writing memory dates to 1981. I was about fifteen years old, and cancer had invaded my body in the form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In some ways, cancer cells act like weeds in a garden – unwanted, unloved, and pernicious. And “weeds don’t just grow, they grow with intent. They grow aggressively . . . They sneak in and swarm up when you back is turned,” Penelope Lively observed in her memoir, Life in the Garden. In 1981, the preferred method for eliminating Hodgkin’s was surgery followed by radiation therapy.
Sitting in the outpatient radiology waiting room at the hospital where I was treated, I raged on the wide-ruled pages of my black composition notebook. Missing high school and my friends, my notebook became my companion since there was no one else my age there. Like a good friend, I shared my fears that I’d never return to school or that my hair wouldn’t grow back. I spilled my secrets too, like how much I disliked my doctor who never smiled and how awkward I felt getting changed into the thin cotton gowns in a locker room with other patients who were decades older.
When I finished treatment, I asked my speech coach if I could write a speech about my experience to compete in an original oratory tournament. She agreed. In my mind’s eye, I can see those typewritten pages on thin onionskin paper. I gave that speech at a forensics tournament once. Although the judges thought my delivery was great, the subject matter, they said, was too “hard” and “too personal.” It wasn’t “fair” to judge the material, they said. My coach told me that I would not give that speech again. I put the speech and my notebook in my desk and later threw them both away. When I heard the doctor say, “I’m sorry, it’s breast cancer,” some thirty-five years later, I wished I had my fifteen-year-old self’s words, instead of my fifty-year-old memory of them.
But since that first notebook, I’ve filled many journals, mostly during vacations with my husband, Tim, and later with our children. My long hours as a career lawyer didn’t leave much time for creative endeavors, and that included gardening, not that I knew how at the time. In those journals that now line my bookshelves, I wrote about the many gardens my husband, Tim, and I visited before we had children, like Longwood Gardens just outside of Philadelphia. The Longwood Gardens dazzled me and colored my gardening visions for years. Steve Bender, Southern Living’s garden writer, described Longwood to me as the most exciting garden he’s ever visited, as he’s not one to overstate things.
I’d never seen such a rainbow of colored tulips – white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, salmon, variegated, purple, even black. I walked through stately Victorian conservatories filled with delphiniums in every shade of blue. Pink foxgloves, hydrangeas, forget-me-nots, lilies and trellises of sweet peas lined the paths and wrapped us in a fragrant cloud. I made detailed notes in my journal about the plants I saw so I would have a place to start whenever I had my own garden. I was so naïve then. Most of those flowers do not bloom at the same time anywhere other than a greenhouse.
What draws us to write, to garden – to choose the right word or plant? Through gardening and writing, I’ve examined my life and experiences, as a woman, lawyer, wife, mom, or patient. As with preserving memory in words, with gardening, “you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward and forward,” Penelope Lively wrote. Or, as Steven Aitken, editor of Fine Gardening suggested to me, we write and garden because we want to make our little corner of the world “more ours.” Writing and gardening imposed order on sad, joyful, frightening, or chaotic times in my life. Writing and gardening also helped to heal from some of those times. The desire to create or influence our world may lay dormant like a seed until the right conditions make germination possible. Sometimes this happens because of a special person, like Bender’s dad who was a passionate gardener. Sometimes this happens because we are gifted with a special plant.
For me, it was a combination of a special person and a gift of plants. After Tim and I bought our first home in Connecticut in 1995, Tim’s mom, Jeanne, offered to help me start a garden. Her gardens were filled with roses, perennials and manicured shrubs. She had a terrific eye for color and texture, all of which came from her years of experience. My limited, previous encounters with plants rarely ended well—for the plants. So Jeanne gave me hostas, easy to grow perennials fit for a novice. She’d transplanted some years earlier from her sister’s garden in Long Island and had a bounty of them for me to divide and take home. Joining the “sisterhood of the traveling hostas,” I dug them from Jeanne’s perfectly tended beds, planted them in my less than perfect ones, and added water.
The hostas not only grew, but also thrived in my first garden. My newfound abilities surprised me. No longer content with hostas, I dreamed of an overflowing, brightly colored perennial border, like the gardens I visited and seen in pictures. I went to nurseries and talked with the sales people about my dream garden— purely a work of fiction. I didn’t have the skills to grow fluffy, fragrant white and pink phlox or roses. But that didn’t stop me from filling my car with containers of them, while ignoring the sales people’s shaking heads, then planting them—trying to live out my daydreams and largely failing, as I wrote in one of those early journals:
My garden is in bloom now – phlox, buddleia, coneflowers, the roses, and yarrow. This means that the flowers are targets for every critter imaginable. The Japanese beetles are chomping on the roses. Some green worm is munching on the phlox, and thanks to all the rain, the rest of the leaves are falling with some funky white fungus.
Failing, except for the hostas, which had nothing to do with me. When I returned to garden the following year, I asked other gardeners, including Jeanne, for help. I kept journals about what grew best at what time of the year, what needed sun, and what needed shade, as I kept journals about our newborn children, a daughter first, then our sons, and how they grew up in our gardens. As I learned how to be a mom, I also slowly learned what types of plants and flowers grew in my little corner of the world – even when that corner changed as we moved from Connecticut to Illinois, then to New Jersey.
In each new garden, we planted memories, as well as the hostas that traveled with us unearthed, divided, and packed in plastic bags nestled in the back of our family car. When I started our New Jersey garden some fifteen years ago now, I planted two stands at the garden gate of fragrant creamy white and pink jonquils called “Sweet Kate,” after my daughter who was only seven at the time. When they bloom each spring, I remember that sweet girl, now a woman. I planted a Cornelian cherry like the one we had in Illinois under which my then three-year-old son, Tom, played with his trucks. It reminded me with its sulfur yellow blooms that spring was near and of that boy, now a young man. But not every plant in my garden held happy memories.
Some years, I filled my garden and journals with memories of unbearable loss and pain — the loss of parents and grandparents. In the grey journal with violets (for remembrance) on the cover, I wrote about the loss of our child mid-way through one of my pregnancies. My heart felt as if it were ripped from my body, like a plant pulled out of the ground, its roots laid bare. I wrote, “The tulips are almost ready to bloom, as is the dogwood. Spring, the promise of new life, is almost full. I think for me it will now be the season of almost.” Later, in every garden at each of home we’ve owned over the years, I’ve planted an early-blooming azalea as a memorial to her. Each year, when I see the pink blossoms covering its branches, I pause and remember.
In other journals, I wrote about endless summers on Cape Cod at Jeanne’s beach house complete with New England gardens filled with hydrangeas, lavender, roses and family – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. In all of my gardens, I’ve planted lavender – a Proustian reminder of my favorite place.
Some years ago, I returned to the Cape to rest my body and soul ravaged again by cancer and chemotherapy in the lavender and salt-scented air, the quiet broken only by the goldfinches flitting through the yard. As I rested, I wrote about my second encounter with that dreaded beast. Spilling the fear and the sorrow on the page allowed me to replant my interior garden just as writing in my notebook had as a teen. At the time, I also flipped through some of my old journals. In many of them, I dreamed about ditching the law to become a writer. I wanted to take a leave of absence to write or apply to a graduate writing program.
“If I wrote all the time, I could write,” I mused.
When I re-read those words penned long ago, I realized that I’ve been writing all along, as I’ve been gardening. Gardening and writing have vined through the lattice of my life, as the smoky blue Betty Corning clematis is entwined through my garden’s gate.
Over one hundred years ago, Gertrude Jekyll, a British garden designer and writer, wrote that a garden “is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.” Writing has taught me those things, too. Perhaps, then, gardening and writing are not choices to be made, but are two sides of the same coin. Both take time. Both require the honest detachment to dig out the plant that is not working in the landscape or to rewrite the unsatisfactory sentence, paragraph or chapter. Both have allowed me to transform my little corner of the world, reap my stories, and heal my body and soul.
Christine Corrigan is a freelance writer and shares her experiences of family, motherhood, and illness with wit and frankness. When she’s not writing, she’s working in her garden, reading, or supporting newly diagnosed cancer patients. Her essays have appeared in The Brevity Blog, Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Ravishly.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. She recently completed Getting Through Again: How I Did Laundry, Shopped, Loved, Made Lists, and Survived Cancer Twice, A Practical Memoir about her cancer experiences as a teen and adult. She currently is serving on the programming committee of the Morristown Festival of Books and teaches creative non-fiction writing classes for a local adult education program. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and devoted Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
6 thoughts on “In Words and Plants: How I Landscape My Life by Christine Corrigan”
Such fluidity, such beauty. I could read an entire novel by this author. Well done!
Thank you so much for your kind words, and I apologize for my long-delayed response.
Oh Chris….I love your very soul! You are one of those rare people who lives an intentionally reflective life, and who shares it with others. Thank you!
A lovely essay!
Thank you so much!
Chris — Great opening with the challenge quote, mise-en-scene: Mom, you can’t have it both ways! Sets up a great dialectic that lets you weave through your memories and reflections on writing, cancer, gardening, growing up, marriage, work, death. Cancer as weeds is a great analogy; also gardens as a place to plant memories and spring as the season of almost. The set up allows you humor and grand themes. Gardening and writing vined through the lattice of your life! Wonderful!