Garden within a garden

Wendy's garden has several levels, sculpted in terraces at the crest of a ridge, and it commands a view of the whole San Francisco Bay area. She can tell the day's weather by how thick the fog still is, by 9 o'clock or so, around the Golden Gate Bridge. In the first years that this young Englishwoman lived there , she would be out of the house by early morning and into the garden, weeding, pruning, transplanting; and on weekends it was a favorite joint project for her and her New Zealander husband, Ian. Shrubs, rose bushes, flower bulbs by the score would be brought in from local nurseries and great planning sessions held, as more of the steeply sloping hillside was reclaimed from brushy thickets and transformed into miniature English gardens -- with touches of exotic California foliage. Between them the garden was always immaculately kept and friends loved to be there, gravitating down from the redwood deck at an upper level to see what new flowers were in bloom, or how the small, rough stone fountain was progressing -- another project of theirs. It would eventually be surrounded by lilies, and ripple with a lazy, musical trickle of water -- the atmosphere of a fountain you usually find only in some ancient European courtyard.

There is one image I have of Wendy there, a precise and permanent moment last spring, as she sat, by the fountain with her three-month old daughter Christina in her arms, looking out toward San Francisco. Her New Zealand mother-in-law, Joan, was sitting near us, laying out some very British tea sandwiches, and the only sound, that peaceful, sunny late morning, was of the water trickling, some conversational sounds from birds in the trees overhead, and Christina sounding like both, when she half-woke from her nap in Wendy's arms. It was just then, that Wendy murmured, "Isn't this perfect."

I couldn't help glancing at her, then at Joan whose eyes met mine; I think both Joan and I skipped a breath. Wendy's husband, Joan's son, my friend, had been lost in an accident just four months before. Their first child had been born a month later.

If one looked closer at the garden where we sat, there were weeds competing with the first flowers of spring, the brick patio was sprouting tendrils, the early grass was shaggy. There hadn't exactly been time, lately, to work on it. But it was still beautiful; and the day was, indeed, perfect. We had our tea sandwiches and cake, and weeded while Christina sang and waved her arms from a blanket in the shade. Later that days she would have her first horseback ride, perched in a knapsack on her mother's back, while we rode two quiet horses around a ring. The thought of the person we had both loved in our different ways was like a tangible presence.

As friends came by to visit, that brief week of my visit, I noticed few left without having added something to the garden, a slip or cutting to be planted, or an hour's casual raking and weeding while they chatted. When couples came to dinner, the men would disappear somewhere in the course of the evening to fix a leaky faucet or electrical connection and change the winter tires on her car. They made no big production of it, but this close circle of friends had it down to a system. They took Wendy and daughter off with them to their mountain homes on weekends, and treated her home as their own, in terms of keeping it secure and running smoothly. And that included her garden which, after its sudden few months lapse of care, was beginning to bloom and thrive again, rid of its weeds and dead stalks and drifted leaves.

A neighbor had offered some strawberry plants from his garden, and just before I left, Wendy and I transplanted them to one of the small upper terraces by the steps leading down to the fountain. As we plotted a return visit in "strawberry shortcake season," Wendy dug again in the decorative border by the steps and came up with some small, fleshy plants that looked like thick green roses. "Hen and chickens" are their popular name, and they were for me to take home at the east coast for my own "garden" . . . the cheerful jungle along all my city windowsills. And when Wendy and Christina came east to visit just a few months later, the "green roses" were there on the sill thriving -- part of the garden that ecompasses our perambulating, but permanent, extended-family circle of friends.

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