The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, I have thinking a lot about home this week, as I sift through my parents’ belongings and make decision after decision about what to keep, what to give away, and what to dispose of. How do you distill the essence of a life into two cardboard boxes? There is photo after photo of Dad standing with a group of the besuited men that he worked with. He is always grinning when everyone else is looking serious. There are photos of Mum looking stiff and awkward, but then very occasionally there is one where she looks like herself, caught unawares before she could put on her ‘formal’ face. There are clothes that were never worn, ornaments that were never displayed. As the rooms empty, as the shelves come down, it is as if the bungalow is shedding its personality and becoming a blank canvas for someone else to paint their preferences upon.

It was such a happy place, for all the horror and sadness of the last days. When I walk around the garden, which seems to have been taken over by forget-me-nots and cerinthe, I see the stone fairies and fawns and frogs that Mum hid among the plants, so that any visiting children could try to find them. The beech hedge that was always so full of sparrows, is silent now, probably because nobody is filling up the bird feeder. The rotary washing line is completely covered in rust, but the climbing rose that Mum would look out on from the kitchen window is smothered in buds.

I get on with it, because getting the place ready for sale is a project, and one that will benefit Dad. The amount of memories that flood back would be overwhelming if I didn’t keep busy. But it is so quiet, without ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the television, without Mum and Dad snoring gently in their reclining chairs. In one of his books John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and writer, asks if it isn’t just that we miss ‘home’ when we leave, but that the building, in some strange way, misses us. I feel as if the bungalow always did its best to shelter Mum and Dad, and they looked after it and loved it in return. Who am I to question what is embedded in its breeze blocks and roof tiles, its cobwebs and the very soil in the garden? Mum and Dad’s DNA is all over the carpets and the curtains. There is a kind of symbiosis going on, an interrelatedness that reminds me that we don’t just ‘make’ a home, a home also makes us. Maybe we feel ‘at home’ when the partnership is working, where we are doing what the house and garden ‘need’.

And then I return to my home, and see the garden as if for the first time. I have been trying to be gentle with it, to appreciate what it needs as a community of plants and animals. I have learned many lessons along the way, and sometimes I’ve wasted time and money trying to make it ‘do’ things that the aspect, the soil and the light wouldn’t support. How much better to go with the flow in these things.

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

On the left hand side there is an ancient white lilac that I am gradually renovating, a hawthorn tree and a whitebeam. I had the hawthorn and the whitebeam trimmed by a tree surgeon about five years ago, because the canopies of both had become very dense. I was told at the time that the trees would only grow more vigorously to compensate, and this has proven to be true, but goodness, how beautiful all three plants are this year.

What has astonished me this year is the way that the whitebeam has burst into flower. We have had occasional blossoms, but it is absolutely covered. I am so proud of it. It makes me sad to think of how I butchered it previously. Whitebeams are going to have dense foliage given half a chance, and going forward I think I will just sit back and appreciate those grey-green leaves, and the way that they spark silver in the wind.

Another plant that is doing well, growing at the foot of the hawthorn, is the dusky geranium (Geranium phaeum). I have tried other species geraniums, but no others seem as tolerant of the dark, dry conditions on this side of the garden. And the bees adore those dark-chocolate flowers, in spite of their modest nature.

Dusky geranium

A pendulous sedge has planted itself beside the pond, and provides lots of cover for the baby frogs when they emerge from the pond. I was delighted to see three adult frogs today, so it appears that the heron didn’t get the lot after all. I know that pendulous sedge can be an almighty thug, but I just pull up its many, many ‘babies’ and let it get on with being magnificent and solitary.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

And I am also pleased that the meadowsweet that I planted last year is doing well this year, and maybe it will even flower! Watch this space.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

The water hawthorn now has half a dozen flowers, and the marsh marigold is just finishing.

Water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyon)

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

In my very shady side return, the ferns are uncurling their croziers.

And the climbing hydrangea is just about to burst into flower.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)

And all this, of course, is temporary. I suspect that when we sell the house (hopefully in about twenty years) the pond at least will go – no family with small children would want to risk it. Someone else might not want the big, shady trees, or they might want a lawn. We cannot legislate for everything that happens when we are no longer here. Sometimes I feel my heart contract at the thought of the frogs coming back to a deck or a conservatory rather than their traditional breeding grounds. But I also know that this is a complete waste of my emotional energy, and part of a desire to control the uncontrollable. You would think that I would have learned about what I can and can’t influence during this past twelve months, but somehow it only makes me cling on more.

I could learn a lot from Dad. I went to see him while I was in Dorset sorting out the bungalow, and he was very happy sitting in his recliner. One of the new residents reminds Dad of Mum and while on one level he knows that his wife is gone, on another i think that he is always hopeful that she’ll turn up. The new resident actually booted me out of my chair so that she could sit next to Dad, so maybe he reminds her of someone in her life. Dad seems to be completely in the moment. He can’t remember who has been to see him,  or who I am, but if someone is kind to him, or interested in him, he opens up like a flower in the sunshine. He is not worrying about the future, and the past has fallen away behind him, and yet he takes the opportunity to be happy when it presents itself. I left him munching on a bar of Dairy Milk and breaking off a chunk to share with his new friend, no mean feat considering he fractured his wrist a few weeks ago. He might not be in charge of a distillery or the head of a household now, but I have never seen him so content. Maybe home, or at least the ability to feel at home,  is something that we carry in our hearts.

Cirsium atropurpureum

24 thoughts on “Home

  1. Anne

    This is such a difficult time for you, yet you are able to see the beauty and the continuity of life in all of that. All strength to you! I think the glimpses of your garden that you have shown here are beautiful. I look at the mature trees we planted in ours over thirty years ago and just ‘know’ they will be cut down one day – when I am not here to witness such carnage – but for now they provide a haven for birds and insects.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Anne – ‘for now’ is good enough, eh. We can spend a lot of time torturing ourselves about the future if we’re not careful, and for what? I remember how my Mum was terrified that Dad would die first, and she’d be left alone….then, she died first, and Dad’s dementia is sparing him from the worst ravages of loss and grief. Things happen in very unexpected ways.

      1. Laurin Lindsey

        A beautiful reflection! Life is so bittersweet. I do think it is that contrast that makes it interesting. Gardens are a perfect reflection of how dynamic life is! I love your take on your garden. I just put in a wee pond hoping frogs will find it : ) HUGS

  2. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    I enjoy all your posts but this is one I shall re-read often. It’s relevant to me in several ways and as always so honest and perceptive.

  3. cilshafe

    A moving epitaph to the life that went before. More often than not we never know the secret history that houses hold.

  4. Robin Huffman

    Dear Vivienne, this is one of the most tender, exquisite things I’ve ever read. Thank you for creating and sharing it. I will re-read it and share, so others know of your spirit.

  5. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    That’s a wonderful post. After maybe 8 months on the market we finally handed over the keys on my dad’s house in January. (I say dad’s because he was there alone for his last 4 years). And only today will we be taking the very last of some of his (now our) stuff back to Switzerland. But deciding what to keep and what to throw away, or give to the charity shops, is very difficult. I wore a pair of his cufflinks at my daughter’s wedding. You never forget. 😊

    1. Bug Woman

      It is difficult, isn’t it. I’ve tended to keep the things that Mum made, rather than the things she bought, but I do still have her hairbrush, with some of her long silver hair in it. Strange the things we hold on to…

  6. Andrea Stephenson

    Beautifully moving Vivienne. It’s so hard to pack up a house and to know what to keep and what not to keep. Your garden looks like a beautiful solace. Our Council has just planted a new whitebeam in the park, still young and tender but full of new leaves, I’m hoping it survives.

  7. Anne Guy

    Another great heartfelt post Vivienne…so hard going through possessions and closing down an important part of the past you sound very strong and seem to be dealing with all these awful issues with great courage. Lovely photos too the natural world gives great comfort at difficult times as you say…

  8. Sharon

    You’ve just identified for me two plants I saw at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum in south Hants on Saturday. They weren’t labelled, which I consider pretty poor showing for such an illustrious establishment.

  9. vornster

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Your previous commenter was spot on with ‘tender and exquisite’. And I hope the meadowsweet froths beautifully for you this year!


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