It’s amazing what you might uncover with just a little bit of digging.
This morning I was on my way home from dropping the missus at the station, and remembered as I drove past a certain house that an old lady I’d meet just two days ago had told me she’d leave out a pile of wood for me to take to another friend of mine who has a wood burning stove.
We first met just briefly the week before, when I first noticed a pile of really nice wooden posts in front of her lovely little house; I’d stopped to ask about that first pile of wood, which she said I could have, and it was then she’d told me to come back Wednesday, as she had plenty more.
This morning as I drove past, sure enough, there was the pile of wood. After a bit of ‘coooooo-eee!’-ing down the side path, which circumnavigated a beautiful garden out front, she emerged, hat on, already busy in the garden at 8am. She called me down the back, as she was just starting on a new pile of wooden posts.
I walked down the very neat path, and came face to face with the most cultivated back-yard I think I’ve ever seen! Row upon row upon row of head-high bean stalks. Over head high, for me..at least six feet tall, all the way from the patio to the back fence, heavy with beans, and thick with foliage. You could hide a large dog in there, easily!
She told me that the garden had been her husband’s. For thirty four years he’d worked on it – two thirds of the amount of time they’d been married. And clearly work on it he had, as the beans only concealed the further rows of herbs, vegetables and other bits and pieces the garden was full of. Full to the brim, it seemed.
So we got to work taking down the wooden trellis her husband had erected long before, as men of that part of the world tend to do. (See earlier IYDIW stories to see what I mean.)
I gathered he wasn’t around any more. But I asked whether it was he who put it up. She said yes. Every day he worked out here, she said, for thirty four years, making enough beans, mainly, to feed their whole family, who still come to visit.
After a pause, I asked what sort of herbs were growing. ‘Any Basil?’ I asked. To which she said ‘No, no Basil this year…it didn’t grow because I was away every day, seeing my husband in hospital. For nine months I went, every day. I left at seven in the morning, and got home ten at night. Every day for nine months, so no basil this year.’
He’d died just two months before.
‘Are you sad?’ I asked. To which she said ‘No. He’s happy now. He’s having a rest. And I still visit him every week.’
We kept working, and I was aware of the fact that her children might be worried if the knew some roust-about like myself was in their mother’s backyard. In her house, no less, as she’d asked me at one point to fetch her the phone which was ringing inside. (She continued gardening with one hand when I did, neck deep in beanstalks, still removing the giant pods as she spoke in Lebanese to a friend.)
So, to put her children at ease, I decided to share something about myself. Seeing she was Catholic, something easily ascertained by the abundance of shrine-like monuments around the patio, I thought I’d tell her about my aunt, who is a Catholic nun, and about how she tended the garden in the convent she lived in, in France.
So we kept talking, getting on to what to do with beans, and then another Lebanese ingredient called, I think, b’hali (I haven’t looked this one up yet), and then onto other things. Eventually, what she and her husband had done for work before retiring long ago.
And this is where the story gets amazing, because it turns out Ms Michael, as she asked me to call her, was an orderly at the very same hospital my mother worked at for many years; the Royal North Shore.
And then it turned out they were there at the same time. ‘I used to do whatever I was asked to do, for seventeen years!’ she said. ‘Cleaning, tidying, everything…even looking after babies.’
My Mum was the head of maternity at that time.
‘I remember her!’ said Ms Michael. ‘I do. I remember her walking down the hall…’. She held out her hand to indicate a certain height; my Mum was quite short.
I was shocked. ‘You do?! You really do???’ I asked.
‘I do.’ she said. ‘I remember her. Very pretty.’ she said.
My Mum was very pretty.
So I had a bit of a cry. My Mum died in 1996, not long after Ms Michael retired from Royal North Shore, where I was also born, and where she was looking after babies at the very same time, 1980.
‘I could have looked after you,’ she said. ‘And now we meet again. We were meant to be friends, and now we are. We’re friends.’
And then she showed me b’hali (pardon my spelling, I’m yet to research it), told me how to cook it, and gave me a nice little pile, as well as some beautiful herbs, in a bag to take home.
‘You’ll have to teach me how to cook beans,’ I said. ‘I’ve just gone vego…’
To which she looked displeased. ‘You need meat twice a week’.
‘I’ll show you how to cook.’
So I’m going back this weekend to see my new friend, who I may have seen a long time ago. One of the first faces I would have seen in my life, maybe even before I saw my own mother’s. And here we are. just blocks apart, sharing our love of what’s in the garden.
And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stopped to say hello, stopped to help a friend by grabbing some wood – stopped to smell the roses.
What a lovely smelling rose it is, and it’s still only morning.