Back to the garden

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”  ~May Sarton

I’m taking time off to work in the garden, so I’ll leave you with one of my gardening essays. This one was published in Victoria magazine, March 2010. I’ll be back next week after a few more trips to the nursery ….


Last spring, members of our Oakland County Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous. And with good reason.

Master Gardeners arent just fooling around with bulbs and Miracle-Gro. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants; establishing lawns; growing vegetables and fruit trees. I bow to their expertise.

Sure, Ive written a few magazine essays and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. Ive shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfathers ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and Im a dangerous amateur with a record of murdering rose bushes and planting azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading tulips. Somewhat relieved as I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we also lost several stately maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials – trillium, Solomons seal, or bleeding heart – that Id collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world reminds us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my menopausal body and my newly emptied nest. For a while, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up – by choice or by accident – you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldnt do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, Id never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. The garden has become an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from deadlines and the clutter inside our home. Its also living proof that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writers block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone whos been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when black moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  But we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, its easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things cant get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and tender new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs. And that when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

–Reprinted from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —

Where to read me this week

clothesLadies, if you’ve ever wondered if your wardrobe is aging you, don’t miss the May 11 issue of Michigan Prime featuring Cindy Papasian of Leon & Lulu. You’ll find my column on age-appropriate dressing in the magazine (in today’s Sunday Detroit News and Free Press) or in the online edition here.

On another topic: Do you feel drained after encountering folks who can’t stop talking about themselves? My guest column this week on Dr. Irene Levine’s Friendship Blog tackles this painful social dilemma with suggestions on how to be a better conversationalist. Please click here to read the column.

Another Mother’s Day

This essay was written three years ago, before my mother was moved to a nursing home. I’m republishing it this week, in honor of Mother’s Day.


Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the duster-length black sweater has been a staple in my spring wardrobe ever since my mother bought it for me several years ago.

Pulling it out of winter storage last month, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of my mother – and a time when I wasnt overwhelmed by what social workers refer to as “caregivers burnout.”

Then came an unexpected flood of tears.

Its not like me to fall apart over a sweater while Im reorganizing my closet, but then again, my 80-year-old mother hasnt been herself lately, either.

Up until this year, Moms decline has been gradual. In 2008, not long after my son earned his college degree, everyone in the family noticed she was repeating her favorite stories even more than usual. Her friends began calling to report that she’d missed  club meetings and lunch dates. At first I dismissed these episodes as normal signposts of the aging process — or blamed them on medication side effects. But a phone call from Moms primary care physician, who was treating her for several cardiovascular issues, confirmed what we’d suspected all along.

“I’m concerned that your mothers memory loss could be a symptom of progressing dementia,” the doctor told me. “Its time to look into it.”

Getting a diagnosis and some help

So began a series of tests and appointments at Beaumont Hospitals Geriatric Evaluation Clinic, where my mothers vascular dementia was officially diagnosed. A team of geriatric specialists outlined their prognosis, offering safety precautions and lifestyle tips that would foster Moms independence as long as possible. There was good news to sweeten the bad: The doctors agreed that Mom, a widow, was capable of living alone in her condo a while longer — but that she shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

That was last November, but Mom doesnt remember visiting the clinic, nor does she use the word “dementia” to describe her frequent memory lapses. Of course, shes devastated by the loss of her driving privilege and wants to believe shell get it back.

Meanwhile, I learned about Beaumont Hospital’s Helping Hands program, a private hire service that assists older adults with transportation and light housekeeping. Our Helping Hands companion, Barbara, has become my mothers new best friend – and shes my weekly respite from errand running. But Barbara’s part-time assistance is only a temporary solution.

Friends and family members are trying to talk Mom into moving to an assisted living facility while shes still able to make her own choices, but shes totally resisting the idea. “There are too many old people there, and I’m not ready for that,” she said after touring one of the nicest eldercare facilities in the area.

Of course, I cant blame her for seeking refuge in denial. These days, I find myself wishing I could rewrite this sad scenario, too.

Remembering a mother’s heart

Like most dementia patients, my mother is often preoccupied with real and imaginary problems. She calls me in a panic when she cant find her TV guide, or thinks a thief snatched her garden hose. As per her doctor’s orders, I organize her pills and visit daily to ensure she takes them on schedule. When her anxiety mimics a heart attack (which happens often) shell ask to be driven to the ER. But she no longer calls just to chat or to express interest in what I do when Im not managing her medical care.

To be fair, shes lost interest in nearly everything she once enjoyed, from needlework to lunch with friends. And shopping.

Years before she became ill, my mothers favorite sport was bargain shopping. While my father bonded with his buddies at Tiger games, Mom and I would hit the malls and discuss our wardrobe scores over lunch. Even after I grew up and had a child of my own, shed still purchase a new item of clothing for me whenever the seasons changed.

Which brings me to the story of how I acquired my black sweater.

Several years ago, I told my mother Id been hunting for a transitional sweater that would substitute for a spring jacket. Id looked for one in several clothing stores and had nearly given up the quest when, one spring afternoon, I found a T. J. Maxx shopping bag hanging on the side door to my house. In it was the perfect black sweater, which my mother had purchased at her favorite discount store.

Rediscovering the sweater in my closet last month, I remembered the mother and best friend I sorely missed. My tears released a tsunami of mixed emotions, from anger to despair. As Kahil Gibran wrote, “When you are feeling sorrow, look again in your heart, and you will see that you are weeping for that which was once your delight.”

Until that moment, Id been privately raging against the dementia that was slowly devouring my mothers life; her self. And I hadnt fully grieved the loss of the woman she once was – the strong, thoughtful woman who had shared household tips and recipes; encouraged my career; baby-sat my son when he was small; and took delight in shopping for new clothes.

I wore the black sweater again last week when I drove Mom to an appointment at her pacemaker clinic. “Thats a pretty sweater youre wearing. Is it new?” she asked, trying to make small talk as we headed down Woodward Avenue. Not surprisingly, she had no recollection of buying the sweater.

So I reminded her that she’d surprised me with it a few years ago, and that it was one of my favorite things. She looked genuinely pleased. I also noticed a familiar sparkle in her eyes when I mentioned T.J. Maxx – and I made a mental note to take her shopping soon. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: Mom and me, Mother’s Day 2011