Gardens and Their Power to Heal

Alison van Diggelen - San Jose, California
Entered on June 13, 2006
Alison van Diggelen
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family, legacy

When my father died at the age of seventy, it was a shock that I struggled to accept, especially as I hadn’t visited him for months. His death was probably as inevitable as winter rain—he endured chronic asthma his whole life in Scotland and he was weakened by tuberculosis—but it still hit me hard.

Throughout their lives together, he and my mum nurtured the kind of garden that made the neighbors pause on their evening strolls, and point and smile at the fanfare of roses and profusion of lavender by the front porch. As a kid, when I helped dad empty the grass cuttings from the rusty old lawn mower, he’d tease the passing joggers, “Come and I’ll give you some exercise—you can mow my lawn any day!”

I still treasure an image of him standing in the garden, smiling with his crooked teeth, sun glinting off his thick glasses, wearing a huge scarlet bloom in the buttonhole of his shirt.

His death and its aftermath deepened my faith in gardens, and my belief in their power to heal.

He left me an inheritance, modest in dollars, but vast in terms of his life’s sacrifices. It felt wrong just to put it in the children’s college funds. Instead we planted it where he might have wanted: our own backyard in California. Where a lawn once grew, there was a chaotic jumble of knee-high weeds, and beyond, a tangle of dense juniper and live oak stretching up the hill.

It took many months of effort, and it’s still progressing, but now on warm summer evenings, the scent of jasmine fills the air as my kids romp around a secret path, winding through a stand of oleander. They delight in discovering new saplings and fresh blooms.

Like my dad did, I teach them to close their eyes and inhale the scent of our fragrant yellow roses, the ones that remind me most of him. Where rosemary cascades over a stone retaining wall, I can see my father lifting the skip of his tweed bonnet, scratching his bald head, and saying in his Scottish accent, “Aye, you’ve got yoursel’ a right strong dry-staine dyke. Good, good.”

Or I can see him puffing up to the deck with a view of the garden and the kids frolicking through it. “That’s my girl,” he’d say.

In this garden that Dad made possible, I often take time to reflect on life and am grateful for each new season. In early summer at tomato planting time, I enjoy feeling the damp clay soil between my fingers as I push the dirt firmly around the slender stalks. At harvest time, the taut flesh and rich aroma of those sweet ripe tomatoes in my hands bring me another tangible connection to home and family traditions.

During his last summer, my father wrote to me about the meaning of life—the passing of the baton, he called it, from parent to child. From growing season to growing season. I still miss his quirky humor and wheezy laugh, the twinkle in his old brown eyes, but I believe in the power of gardens to heal and help people live on in our hearts.

Alison van Diggelen is a Silicon Valley–based journalist and host of the award-winning interview series “Fresh Dialogues.” She has also interviewed writers for the Commonwealth Club of California, moderated at conferences, and taught green entrepreneurship at the University of Edinburgh Business School.