Updated: Feb 22, 2020
I gave a reading last week at an old house in the green suburbs of Philadelphia. We drove past hollows full of trees just barely leafed out. Later, I could see the sliver of a moon and the air smelled sweet. I read in a dark paneled room leaning near a light to see the words. Before the reading started, I snooped around the library and found three bound pamphlets from the Garden Club of America of tours in the early 1900s. Mrs. Anabel Parsons, the owner of the house until the 1970s, had gone on the tours. Her notes were in pencil at the back of the printed pages. She was interested in beekeeping and how to make a trellis for roses and exotic new flowers for her garden.
I felt very close to her as I read her underlined lists of plants that were flourishing in Glen Cove, Long Island. Her portrait hung in another room where a gas fire was burning in the original fireplace from the early 1700s. She was just thirty and her young son leaned against her side. Divorced after only a few years, her second marriage was to an investment banker. Her face is sweet and round, her hair already white at such a young age. She surrounded her house with garden rooms. I walked through the perfectly proportioned enclosures on my way to the house. There were roses just budded like my pots of roses on the deck and lady’s mantle in thick whorls against the soil. The door to the boxwood maze was locked, so I looked out at it now and then as I waited for the reading to start.
You can read a garden like a poem, Stephanie Ross tells me in her book What Gardens Mean. Gentlemen in eighteenth century England thought so and designed their estates like a visual poem. You traveled through the garden reading the statues and curves and grottoes until the “complex charged” meaning was clear. Mrs. Parsons’ garden is formal and meticulous. She planted her boxwood garden using cuttings from twelve plants. Her roses are in an orderly design. The pond shimmers below the house. Terraces lead down to the water. I wonder what kind of secrets she was writing in her garden. Her son, according to a pamphlet about the house, died at 56. He drank. No girlfriend was good enough for his mother.
Anabel Parsons was almost 90 when she died. Once, she smuggled slips of plants she bought in Europe under her hat and “sailed through customs unnoticed.”