January 21, 2019

Celie Sturtevant

My path to becoming a writer was not a conventional one.  I lacked an MFA from any college, I attended no university-affiliated writers’ workshop, and I had no circle of established writer friends from which to draw wisdom.  What I had was a head full of ideas and an urge to get them down on paper.  Because I was learning as I wrote, some of my writing ‘lessons’ were painful to absorb.

Celie Sturtevant
One of those lessons came at the hands of Lucille ‘Celie’ Sturtevant, who passed away last week at the age of 91.

By way of background, Betty and I led a nomadic existence for several decades.  I made the most of career opportunities with the result we were sometimes in a given city for just a few years.  We came, we set up housekeeping, and we left without leaving footprints in the community we nominally called home.  That changed in 1999 when we returned to the Boston area, and to the same town we had called home through the 1980s.

This time, we began to sink down roots.  We joined a community garden, Betty joined the local women’s club and garden club.  And she began telling me stories of the people she met in those clubs.  I came to know those people personally when I volunteered to be the ‘strong back’ at club events. 

Celie was one of the people who made a deep and indelible impression.  She was a tiny woman, but full of laughter, smart insights about people and events, Yankee ingenuity, and affection for those around her.  Though in her 70s when I met her, she was a golfer and a skier.

When I retired in 2005, I had the outline of plots for several books, one of which became my second published work, The Garden Club Gang.  My plot was simple: four ‘women of a certain age’, acting out of friendship for one another, come together to do something very much outside their comfort zone.  Complications ensue. 

One of those four characters was modeled on Celie.  I knew enough about writing to understand you don’t lift someone from life and put them down on the page intact.  You change things around.  You create a mosaic and turn that montage into a mold that becomes your character.  Still, a writer has the leeway to insert a few ‘tells’ that give a wink to the character’s true identity.

When the first draft was done, Betty read it and suggested I might want to show it to Celie.  I called her and asked if she’d like to be a ‘first reader’ for one of my manuscripts.  She said she would be delighted.  When I dropped off a printout of the text, I made no mention I might have modeled a character on her.

I should mention the ‘something’ these four ‘women of a certain age’ do is plan and execute the robbery of a large New England fair.

Four years later, Celie
made a second
A week later, Celie called and said I could pick up the document.  When I arrived at her home, she was seated at her kitchen table, the manuscript in front of her.  She motioned me to the chair opposite her.  She was drumming her fingers on the draft of my book, and she was biting her lower lip.

I sat down.  She drummed her fingers a moment longer and then forcefully shoved the manuscript across the table toward me.  In her sternest voice she said, “I would never do anything like this.”  Defiant, she then folded her arms.

I went back to the drawing board.  I recast the character, excising anything that might conceivably lead a reader to conjure up an image of Celie Sturtevant.  In the process, I created a better, more nuanced and sympathetic character than the one I had written just a few months earlier.   Celie received one of the first copies of The Garden Club Gang.  I urged her to read it and she did.  Her review was highly positive; she said, apart from the character’s diminutive stature, she recognized nothing about herself.

Celie's third time; this
spring will be her fourth
Celie’s reaction that day in her home was a lesson I never forgot.  Ever since, I’ve made certain my characters, while inspired by people I know and admire (or, in some cases, know and dislike intensely) have physical characteristics and personality traits either imagined or borrowed from multiple sources.

This spring, the character inspired by Celie will appear in the fourth installment of what has become The Garden Club Gang series.  In fact, her much-transformed alter ego comes center stage in this outing.

In attending her memorial service this past weekend, I saw how deeply she touched the lives of those around her and her community.  I can state from personal experience she certainly touched mine.

January 16, 2019

A New Year, With New Gardening Possibilities

For a gardener, the wonderful thing about January in New England is that all things are possible.  Whether the ground is bare or under a blanket of snow, you need only look outdoors – or, better yet, take a walk – and imagine what might be in 2019.  That’s what we’re doing this week.

Courtesy of our neighbors’ trees, three November and December wind storms filled our property with thousands of plump pine cones – themselves a product of this year’s wet summer and fall.  We carted off barrels and bags of them lest they either sprout into pine forests or attract unwanted squirrels.  Because the cones buried themselves in nooks and crannies, extracting them gave us the opportunity to mentally revisit our 2018 garden and think about what can be done this year.

Thousands of pine cones
For example, I pulled a clutch of pine cones from a bed of daisies.  Last year’s stalks were cut down in November but the 2019 greens are already in place, over-wintering at the base of the plants; forming a blueprint of what the bed will look like next year.  Just two years ago this bed consisted of eight, gallon-sized pots on three-foot centers.  Now, they’ve grown into an unbroken mass.  Should the daisies be encouraged to spread further?  Based on their current ‘footprint’, it’s likely we’ll be offering our friends potted-up daisies next year.

Another example: our miniature clumping birch looked spectacular last year.  Now shorn of its leaves, however, it’s easy to see the crossing branches that will spell trouble down the road.  With the ground frozen, it’s easy to get in to cut the problem branches.  If we waited until April, we’d be up to our shins in mud.

This eupatorium grew so tall it hid
the redbud tree behind it
Or this: last year we planted a marvelous variegated eupatorium in one of our beds.  The foliage was so dramatic we elected not to trim it back in June.  Big mistake; the perennial grew to more than six feet in height, dwarfing everything around it, including a young Cersis canadensis ‘Burgundy Hearts’.  In the cold light of January, I tagged the eight-inch stubble of the eupatorium with the stern command: ‘trim me in June’.

This was to have been the site of a
water feature; it never seemed right
Betty has wanted a water feature in the garden ever since we built our house.  The original site was planned for a space behind our home but it never felt right and so the project went into abeyance.  This fall we added several hundred bulbs to one of the beds in the front of property.  Now, with the leaves off the trees and shrubs, and the outline of the newly planted bulbs apparent, it’s obvious where a small pond ought to be.  That will be a spring project. 

The garden is full of tales to tell.  When everything is green and in bloom, it’s easy to yield to temptation and say, ‘Leave it alone; it’s beautiful just like it is’.  In the brown (or snow) of winter, logic rears its glorious head.  The result will be a new, re-imagined garden.