My Mother's Garden

BY: MICHAEL LELEUX

I’m a firm believer that the universe provides us with what we need, just when we need it.  So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I was introduced to Mister Owita’s Guide To Gardening soon after the passing of my beloved mother. Hers was a long and painful journey out of this world.  Needless to say, I was a disaster in the weeks following her death. I mean, I’m a mama’s boy and I’m gay, so my overwhelming grief was predictable.  Given the state I was in at the time, the inspiration provided by Carol’s book was deeply healing.  She reminded me to open my eyes, and to appreciate the myriad blessings that come to me every day. 

Now, it shouldn’t have been Carol’s job to remind me to live in the moment, and to look for life’s lovely secrets. But, her story reminded me of a quiet promise I’d made to myself and to my mother during the long months of Mom’s illness. One day, having just returned from what felt like my one-millionth trip to Houston’s Methodist Hospital, I left my office, and made my way back to the parking lot. To my great surprise, I discovered a lone, lovely, flowering tree just a few feet from the car. Now, it's not like someone had just planted that tree. It had been there for many years.  But apparently, I’d always been too distracted to notice it’s existence, and more importantly, it’s beauty. “How is that possible?” I wondered.  “What else could I possibly have been looking at over the past ten years?”  Then and there, I promised myself that, to honor my mother’s life, and to provide some meaning to her suffering, I would attempt to truly experience the beauty life offers.  To really “stop and smell the flowers.”  I meant that figuratively, but I also meant it literally.  Since I have a background in photography, I promised to take pictures of the actual beautiful flowers surrounding me.  (Today, my Instagram feed is a veritable garden.)

So, this lesson—to really notice life’s exquisite moments—is one my mother gave me during an endless season of loss, and also, one that Carol so movingly reminded me of during a slow season of rebirth. 

The Awful Grace Of God

By: Robert Leleux

To me, the great virtue of Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart is its emphasis on the “unexpected.”  Several years ago, I wrote a little book called The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving, about my beloved grandmother’s journey through Alzheimer’s.  It was a happy book with a sad story.  And the experience of living it, and the experience of writing it, taught me a lot.

The circumstances of my grandmother’s suffering were excruciating and peculiar.  She was an exquisite, extraordinary Southern lady who had what’s fondly called “an anger management problem.”  It wasn’t a problem for me.  I cherished her outbursts.  However, I don’t think it signaled a happy personality.  I think she was one of those millions of “Betty Friedan” women who felt like they’d been robbed of their moment in the sun; those “I could have been a contender” women.”  Alzheimer’s made her forget all that.

Now, there’s nothing in the world that would have made me desire her to suffer through that excruciating disease.  I think the loss of her intellect and wit was akin to the burning of a wing at the Smithsonian.  A genuine national tragedy.  And yet, her final years were, I believe, her most joyous.  She seemed happy all the time.  Now, this has led me to many metaphysical ponderings.  Among them, that grace is not always pretty or happy.  That grace is often achieved through unbearable pain.  That the workings of God are sometimes accomplished through suffering.  It’s like that marvelous thing that Robert Kennedy used to say about the death of his brother, paraphrasing Aeschylus, “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”

Now, I’m a big believer in Ascendant Christianity.   I’m a big believer in concentrating on the resurrection, rather than on the crucifixion.  But I’ve been shocked by the comfort Kennedy's words have given me.  By the notion of “unpretty” grace, or wisdom, or the comfort of God.  And to me, that’s the message of Mr. Owita’s Guide.  It ain’t always pretty, folks.  But sometimes, it’s there for you, drop by drop…  That hard and icy, impenetrable winter ground really does hold a thousand lovely secrets…

 

Back to School

Carol Wall left us many treasures. And though she may not be here, in person, her voice and her stories live on in all of her writing. Here’s an article originally published in the September 1983 issue of Southern Living Magazine.


As a young girl coming of age in a small Southern town, I faced the end of my fifteenth summer with youthful optimism.

The feeling began long before back-to­-school ads appeared with their focus on corduroy and lean yellow pencils. It was a feeling that stirred within me even before the lifeguard had packed away his striped umbrella, even before the trees along the ancient New River first revealed sepa­rate, shuddering leaves where once had been masses of green summer foliage.

So palpable was the change-and so sudden-that a young girl could almost name the hour at which late summer be­came early autumn, the time when the halter tops on sale lost their allure to the polished Weejuns in the window of the local department store.

I now turned my attention from Cop­pertone to Chemistry. In that pivotal mo­ment, getting a tan seemed suddenly inferior to such pursuits as ironing my round-collar Villager blouses and decid­ing what to wear for the first day of school.

Such a decision could change young lives on that day when my friends and I, after a summer of togetherness, would look at each other as if for the first time. On that day, boys could be won. Teach­ers impressed. Classmates made envious, or so we imagined.

In our small town the signs of autumn appeared in predictable sequence: wool replaced seersucker in the downtown display windows even as homeroom assignments for the new school year were published in the local newspaper.

The closing of the pool signaled yet another change, as the golden-haired lifeguard (a new-boy-in-town known to us as Richie) completed his metamorphosis from King of the Local Waters to ordi­nary mortal sophomore.

On my way home from cheerleading practice on the last day of summer, I paused to observe this same mortal sophomore punishing his bronzed body on the football field of our town's only high school-a cherished high school, a school where "Halls of Ivy" was sung regularly at graduation without a trace of hypocrisy.  After all, it was 1965; we were still mourning JFK, hating Communism, and being true to our respective schools throughout the land.

As I watched Richie's struggle with an imaginary gridiron foe there on the 50­-yard line, I recalled days at the pool, now lost forever, when I had gathered all my resources for a solitary stroll past his lifeguard stand-my hair smoothed back with a wide turquoise headband, "Peachy-Keen" lipstick applied with vo­luptuous thickness and blotted lovingly, my tummy tucked in.

He had never seemed to notice me on my brave forays, except for the time that I'd offered him a stick of Juicy Fruit and he'd accepted. His sunglasses seemed to mirror instead the images of other girls, shapely girls who could lie on their sides on a beach towel and produce an image worthy of the Perfect Girl who captures the heart of Elvis in one of his movies.

As I assessed my own figure day after summer day, I wished that such a boy as Richie could learn to love me for my mind.

In my self-conscious naiveté, it did not once occur to me to consider what inse­curities this new boy in town might be nurturing behind his mirrored glasses. The melancholy of youth dictated that I, alone in all the world, was plagued with shyness and self-doubt.

And so, I had given up my handsome lifeguard-had bravely given him over (in my mind) to girls more deserving than I, who could do justice to a cashmere sweater. It was the last summer in my life that would find me giving up so easily.

Standing there at the practice field on that last day of summer, I briefly entertained the hope that my being a cheerleader might help. In a recurring fantasy, Richie would drape his varsity jacket over my shoulders at the end of a hard­earned victory, and, giving me a chaste kiss, would murmur, "Your school spirit means more to me than I can say."

But when he did not once look up from the practice field that summer day, the sophomore in me knew that only Perfec­tion gets her man.

I grimly resolved to be an honor student, if not an internationally acclaimed scholar. Accordingly, I decided that it was time for some regimen and a moderate portion of agony. That agony included my confinement in the sterile classroom where, on the first day of school, I looked out on a green landscape that had been mine for the taking only the day before.

My attention was divided between that faraway world and the fair-haired Richie, who now occupied a desk not far from mine. I found that the outside world had acquired an alien appeal, like that of a jilted lover suddenly unwilling to recon­cile. I knew that I should have loved summer better.

As for Richie, he seemed smaller now and more human, his biceps discreetly covered by the sleeves of a tasteful oxford cloth button-down shirt. They had taken away his whistle now that summer was over, and I found that I liked him better sitting two rows away, having trouble with his equations instead of yelling at kids to stop the horseplay on the diving board.

They had taken away his sunglasses, too, and I was startled to realize that he had the pale eyes of a dreamer.

This realization was to be the first of many in the autumn days to follow. Not the least of my lessons was that difficulties in mathematics can provide a sound basis for friendship, and that friendship (which does not ask Perfection) is a very nice starting point, indeed.

As I walked home after the first day of school, I heard the familiar silence that tells of Nature's gathering up of itself in preparation for autumn's display of crazed brilliance.

In the space of that silence, I felt a sense of peace, a sense of something good waiting to happen.

After all, I was young, school had begun, and the New Year was as yet untarnished.

I could still make all A's. I could be voted most popular.

I could even go undefeated.