Literally Literary
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Literally Literary

HEAVEN IN A GARDEN

A Story of Virginia

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

As a child, the aroma of herbs floated through my bedroom window after traveling across a fence, over a driveway, and past a line of trees. I’d lay in bed on summer nights and sniff, breathing in delectable scents. My dreams were of Italian sauces with fresh oregano and basil or hot tea with mint leaves.

Lorraine and Jess were our retired neighbors. People from somewhere else, I don’t recall where, who retired to Lodge Creek in rural Virginia. Long before we moved from Baltimore, they built a cozy cottage and planted a herb garden.

Their house was a perfect square with a large, screened porch where Lorraine often sat smoking her cigarettes, a habit Jess disliked but tolerated as long as she indulged outside. A traditional white picket fence, with dangling vines of gourds, looped around their yard.

The interior of the house consisted of rooms that flowed, one into the other, all small and comfortably rustic. Entering the front door, you stepped into a living room with a large stone fireplace. Walking to your right, you entered the kitchen — small but efficient. To the back of the kitchen were free-standing stairs that led to the second floor. Walking around them would lead you to the guest bedroom. To the left was the shared bath which had a second door. Walk through that door and you entered the slightly larger master bedroom. And, leaving the master through the door on the left, you entered a small dining room that was cornered in the living room. A square house whose rooms made a perfect circle. A place that delighted and comforted me.

The second floor was wood from top to bottom and smelled of forests, paints, and herbs. There were two main rooms and a small half-bath between. One room was Lorraine’s herb and gourd drying workroom and the other was Jess’ art studio.

Jess was a professional painter. I don’t know if he did that for a living before he retired or if it was a sideline, but he sold paintings through an art catalog long before the internet allowed us to purchase art without leaving our homes. His studio overlooked their yard that sloped down to Lodge Creek where their boat, Dixie, was docked. Jess said that the creek was his muse. Fifty-five years ago, he painted this fairy castle for me:

Lorraine’s room smelled of earth and dried herbs. Table tops and window sills were lined with drying herbs from her garden and gourds from the vines that grew on their picket fence. One corner of the room served as her art studio. A small table, beneath hanging shelves containing paints was where she decorated her gourds, transforming them into colorful vases and containers that she gave away as gifts.

Jess was a tall, elegant man who indulged in short conversations, preferring to spend most of his time painting in his studio, reading, or puttering on his boat, a boat that rarely left the dock.

Lorraine was the opposite. She could talk for hours, preferably on her porch while puffing Salems. Her voice was husky and warm, no doubt the result of fifty-plus years of smoking. She spoke with enthusiasm, no matter what the topic. Her eyes, surrounded by small wrinkles, glittered and danced. In spite of smoke-stained teeth, her wide, beautiful smile beckoned one to sit and talk a while.

I spent many hours between the ages of eight and sixteen sitting on that porch talking with Lorraine. She loved kids but preferred no more than two at a time, which was perfect when her grandson came to visit each summer and joined us on the porch.

Unlike most adults, Lorraine talked to kids as though we were her age. She told raucous stories and asked meaningful questions. Her interest and lack of judgment allowed me to open up in a way I wouldn’t with anyone else. Her advice was reasonable and never heavy-handed. Most of her guidance came by way of stories. Wrapped up in one of her tales, a moral would weave its way through my brain, getting the point across without boring or annoying me.

Although I don’t know their ages at that time, I do remember that Jess was twenty years older than Lorraine. His step was slow while hers was rapid. Lorraine was young enough and spry enough to manage her own garden but welcomed my assistance, teaching me about the fragrant plants, telling me what foods they enhanced and complimented.

I’d carry a large basket lined with a red cloth; she’d snip and snap herbs dropping them into the basket, talking non-stop, sharing her wisdom and secrets. She’d wave me down beside her on the damp ground, encouraging me to smell the plants not yet ready for picking. Holding harvested herbs in her tanned hands, she’d smell deeply of their scent, smile broadly and say:

I’m growing heaven in a garden.

I moved far away when I was sixteen. My older sister, who married and stayed in the area but fifteen miles from our old home, answered my questions about our former neighbors when she knew the answers but was unwilling to actively keep in contact with them.

Jess died about four years after I moved. When I was twenty-four and married, my husband and I traveled from Florida to Virginia and spent an afternoon visiting with Lorraine. She was older and slower, and she’d finally stopped smoking. Her smile was just as wide and her eyes just as sparkly. She gave me one of her wedding-gift cookbooks saying, “I’d don’t cook much these days since it’s just me here. I think you’ll get many years of use from this cookbook.” I still am.

Two years later, Lorraine had a stroke. She recovered — mostly — but not enough to live alone in the country. A nursing home replaced her cottage. I don’t know what happened to their lovely house, but I hope the home and the herb garden are still there.

I begged my sister to visit the nursing home and after three years, she did. But, by then, Lorraine’s memory was gone. She didn’t know my sister or remember me, but she talked to my sister about her herb garden. She’d pick phantom herbs from the garden growing by her wheelchair, hold them up tenderly to my sister so she could smell the ghostly aroma, and say:

I’m growing heaven in a garden.

Lorraine passed shortly after that. More than thirty years have gone by and every time I use that old Fannie Farmer Cookbook or smell fresh herbs, I think gratefully of my childhood neighbor and her heavenly garden.

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