The pipevine swallowtails emerged from their chrysalises this spring. Can you see them?
The poppies, Ceanothus, and Fremontodendron are blooming again. Do you know what a wet and cold winter we had in California? The weeds are growing like crazy; I can’t keep up with them. The slugs decimated a third of my pea crop. Compared to people who suffered from flooding and other storm damage, I’m lucky to suffer only from weeds and slugs.
The cat tried to die last month. Five days of not eating or drinking, then twenty-four hours on IV fluids at the vet’s. Now she’s fine. She used one of her nine lives on the anniversary of your death, trying to steal the thunder. Oddly, the cat has become more affectionate during the last year. Now I wonder if not only a part of my dog Volpo (1999 – 2011) is inside her, following me around and watching me, but a part of you, too. A part of you that you tended not to express.
I see another hidden side of you now in your beautiful writing. Did you really think it would not interest me?
I’ve been trying to sort out your early life and place it in the context of history. While I documented bits and pieces over the decades, now I can dwell on it with no one to discourage me. I’m grateful for the trail of details you left, some that you shared with me and others that you didn’t. Attempting to fill gaping holes in my knowledge of eastern European history, I’ve been listening to history books while pulling weeds, replastering the kitchen ceiling, and painting exterior house trim – some of my favorite ways to multitask.
The windows in the image above I painted last summer, the fascia along the roof edge just this month. The spring annuals are tall now near the back of my house. You remember the tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), right? Bees love it, and it can cause a skin rash on humans. Some of my other plants that flower only after dark and later in the summer I never got around to showing you.
In June last year I brought back with me books from your Ithaca cottage. I built new shelves for them and am comforted to see the books lining the wall when I’m reading or resting.
Do you know that I’m grateful to you for giving me a stable life when I was growing up? It may not have been the best choice for you. Or maybe, after all that happened when you were young, it was. I try to imagine what other paths your life might have taken.
Are you aware that the Russia-Ukraine war is still going on, in addition to fighting in Palestine and other parts of the world? Of course you would not be surprised. What went wrong in the evolution of Homo sapiens that a diagnostic character of the species is its ability to commit atrocious acts of mass violence towards each other, killing, displacing, and wreaking havoc for generations of families?
Your awareness of the propaganda, hypocrisy, and cruelty of politicians and the people who blindly follow them were never far from your thoughts even while you pursued activities you loved. Is this why I, too, feel the strongest sense of calmness when I’m outdoors? There is something reassuring that the sun rises each day and the plants, even the weeds, rise out of the soil each spring. This still happens now, whether or not you are here to see it. (So far.)
This post is about my mother, Grazyna, who died on March 25, 2022, in Ithaca, NY. My garden is 3,000 miles away from where she lived for the last 62 years and from where I grew up. She hasn’t visited in 20 years, except via Skype. Yet she is here. She is also in Europe, in Poland and Germany especially, places in many ways she never really left. She is also, I hope, in her own former yard in Ellis Hollow, Ithaca, tending to her plants and watching her dogs romp across the lawns.
The caterpillars in my yard remind me of her. I’m rearing pipevine swallowtail butterflies on my pipevine plants this year. She told me many times she hated caterpillars and thought they all should be squished. I told her that many caterpillars turn into beautiful butterflies. Did she hate the butterflies too? No, she said. But she definitely still hated the caterpillars.
Last year she found monarch caterpillars on her two milkweed plants in her Kendal yard. They ate almost all her milkweed leaves. The caterpillars got large. She enjoyed looking for them every day. I waited for her to tell me how she wanted to kill them – or had already killed them — but Grazyna was always full of contradictions. The caterpillars survived and finally wandered away from the plants to pupate. She looked for their chrysalises but couldn’t find any. She was disappointed not to know exactly where they went, and she worried about them. She looked at her neighbors’ milkweeds to see if they had the same leaf damage as her milkweeds. They didn’t. When she saw adult monarchs flying a few weeks after the caterpillars disappeared, she was sure they were the same ones that had been on her plants. She felt honored they’d chosen her milkweeds even though there were so many others nearby. [See footnote below.]
Grazyna hated cats. We did not have any when I was growing up – we had dogs, which she loved. Yet she always wanted to see my cat when we Skyped. And the cat would usually put in an appearance, contrary as my cat is and not always friendly. My cat has personality, Grazyna would say. She also said my cat is “nasty” – but with a smile, as if she understood perfectly. Grazyna was not one to pretend that she liked you if she didn’t. There were a lot of people she didn’t like, or at least never opened up to enough for them to see her kind side.
My yard has a memorial to my German shepherd Volpo: a punctured basketball and small plastic squeaky balls with painted-on smiley faces, his favorites that would light up his eyes. I got Volpo as a puppy from my mother in 1999 near the end of the many decades that she raised German shepherds. Over the course of her life in Ithaca, she whelped 25 litters, each puppy individually cared for and documented, put to the best of her ability into good and loving homes. Some of the people who got puppies from her became her lifelong friends. Grazyna would usually keep one dog from each litter with which she would do obedience training, agility, and tracking. I did the same training with Volpo. We talked all the time during those years about dog training. While I was in California and she was in Ithaca, she taught me over the phone to train Volpo to track – to follow the scent of a person a couple of hours after they had walked through a field or woods, finding objects the person dropped along the way. When I finally met some Bay Area people who tracked, they were astounded that Volpo and I knew how to track only from phone calls and the rest from having laid tracks for my mother when I was growing up.
I would usually try not to point the camera towards Volpo’s memorial in my yard on our Skype calls, because it was too sad for both of us. Volpo was my closest pal, handsome, noble, and kind. I still feel as if his soul is here at my house, perhaps inside the cat who showed up in my yard after Volpo died and who follows me around the way Volpo did. Grazyna greatly missed all her dogs, especially after the last one died in 2018 and she didn’t want to have any more, in preparation for her eventual death. The dogs had been a huge part of her life while I was growing up. I hope she’s once again with Zoonie, Yoshy, Wisla, Visnia, Uta, and all the dogs that preceded them, giving them her special baked liver treats and watching them race happily through the woods and over green Ithaca lawns. Preferably lawns and woods the way they were during the early part of our lives in Ellis Hollow: not yet infested with deer ticks carrying Lyme-disease causing bacteria.
As Grazyna got older, she gardened more. She doted on her plants in Ellis Hollow, knew the quirks and needs of each one. I’ve added gardening to my list of hobbies, too. I wish I could show my mother how my shelling peas are coming along, and how the yard is filled with flowers now because it’s the height of spring in California. Can she see my yellow lupines and orange poppies from where she is?
While digging the endless bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) from the soil around my plants, before it wraps itself around everything and is much harder to extract, I wonder if my mother has read the latest issue of Harper’s magazine and is keeping up with events better than I am while pulling bindweed. If anyone can read after she is dead it would be her. Wherever she is now, has she been able to find news sources covering world events that she doesn’t consider propaganda and leave her seething mad?
I’ve been fortunate never (yet) to experience war. War and escaping from it defined her life. While growing up, I listened to phonograph records she played of Polish war songs, bombs going off in the background of the songs. Being happy was a sign of being an American – which unfortunately I was. It could be confusing for me.
Grazyna was born in Poland in 1931, her parents from Catholic families. Her father became a judge after his family was chased off their Moldova estate during the Russian Revolution. During Grazyna’s first eight years she lived in various towns where her father worked or went to school: Sarny (in Poland then; now in Ukraine); Wołożyn and Oszmiana (both in Poland then; now in Belarus), and Vilnius (in Poland then; now in Lithuania). She ended up back in Vilnius right before the start of World War II. Her one sibling, brother Henryk, died before the war began from scarlet fever after coming down with strep throat. To escape the Russian front, Grazyna and her parents fled to Warsaw. Soon after, they fled to Krakow, where my mother spent most of the wartime years. Her father joined the Polish Resistance and eventually was captured by the Nazis. He died in Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belson in January 1945.
As the Russian soldiers spread west, Grazyna and her mother continued to flee, first briefly to Prague then to Germany at the end of the war. They lived in a refugee camp in Regensburg for two months, then in the nearby town of Fürth im Wald for the remaining time of Grazyna’s stay in Europe. She attended German high school in Cham and learned German, along with catching up with all the years of school she had missed during the war. She was pulled out of high school in April, 1949, just before graduating, when her mother decided to emigrate to the United States. They ended up in Bismarck, North Dakota, where, Grazyna always pointed out, the state tree is a telephone pole and there were no bookstores. Despite the disruptions to her schooling and having to learn yet another language (English), Grazyna earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
My garden is testament that not all of America is like Bismarck, North Dakota. For one thing, it has trees. My neighborhood is culturally and ethnically diverse. Yet as I carefully unwrap the bindweed vines from the peas and the monkeyflowers, I know my piece of America is very different from where she grew up, the places whose histories span not only centuries of great art and important scientific discoveries but also terrible wars that shifted country borders and displaced or killed millions of people. I like to think that she is back in all the places she loved, with the people and places she lost at too young an age. And her dogs are with her and no bombs are falling.
My mother would hate that I’ve written about her, but as she has said many times, she doesn’t give a shit what happens after she dies. I miss her.
Footnote: Ironically, there’s a huge population explosion this year in the Ithaca area of gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar dispar). These are non-native moths whose caterpillars (immature stage) can be very destructive, defoliating many kinds of trees. After a couple of trips to the woods I wanted to kill them all. Sometimes my mother was right. The trick is knowing which caterpillars are to blame.
In the summer of 2014, Michael McGee agreed to tackle repairs on my greenhouse. The supports along one side of the structure were rotting, along with many of the boards to which the supports were attached. Michael did an amazing job.
After Michael’s repairs, I wanted to paint the entire greenhouse. Not only did the new wood need painting, but much of the paint on the old wood was gone or peeling. There had been a partial repainting many years ago, but that paint was not in great shape either.
The greenhouse has 200 windows. The prepping took more time than the painting. This was a big, slow job. One layer of primer + two layers of paint = 600 windows to paint.
The greenhouse was built by architect Michael Cobb for the previous owner of my house. Michael grew up on the property behind mine. Read Michael’s blog for a history of the building of the greenhouse.