In Seattle’s Greenwood neighbourhood, a little red house was owned for forty years by my grandmother, Gladys Corinne Walker, and later for fifteen years by me.
I remember a patio embraced by a pear tree and a plum tree and three camellias, one pink, one red, one white. I would play with the other children in my grandmother’s small day care center on the green painted paving stone patio surrounded by low rock walls softened by campanula, with its blue bells, and baby’s tears, with shiny tiny green leaves. Above, hanging baskets cascaded with pink, red, and white trailing fuchsias. In spring and summer, every meal in warm weather was al fresco on the old picnic table. The pear blossoms in spring would garnish the tablecloth. A cushioned wooden chaise loungue gave me a comfortable place to read for hours.
I grew up surrounded by my grandmother’s many friends who often came over for garden parties and delicious dinners. Gram’s life revolved around her home and garden, and between her tiny day care center and the taking in of ironing, she managed to spend most of her time at home.
Gram involved herself in my school, which was a block away, by sending glorious bouquets of flowers with me to my teachers, and by running a plant booth for the yearly fun fair. A succession of children passed through her day care center, and I wonder if any of them (Sally? Sandra? Trisha? Mike and Bob?) later became dedicated gardeners.
Anyone who came to visit got a tour of the garden – a mere 3000 square feet in a neighborhood near Seattle’s Green Lake – and would leave with “slips” (cuttings) of plants: African violets, hardy fuchsias, roses … and a bouquet of anything in bloom.
Letter written to her by the secretary of the PTA:
Dear Mrs. Walker,
Your many friends in the John B. Allen P.T.A. wish to express their sincere thanks for the many, many years you have devoted to our school and the lovely plants you have donated to help make our Fun Night a success.
Both you and your plants have been genuinely appreciated and we felt it was time to say “thank you”. Many a child has gone home happy because he bought his mommy a plant…whether she needed it or not, she loved it.
Thanks again for everything.
And always, Gram in motion: planting, nurturing, in her jeans and an old shirt, her small glass greenhouse neatly organized with trays of seedlings, her garden weedless and luscious with prize-winning begonias and hybrid tea roses, apricot, clear yellow, red and pink, geraniums and petunias and neat rows of lettuces and green onions, tomatoes heavy with fruit, all mixed together. Her chrysanthemums were as tall as I, and as an adult, I looked and looked for those tall chrysanthemums for my first garden before realizing that their height had been relative to my own.
Here is a photo essay about the evolution of her garden from the 1940s to the 1990.
Gram took great care of her things; she would have hauled this chair up the ladder into the attic for storage every winter (amazingly) and painted it every year so it is very likely the same chair that I had in the garden in the 1980s.
Gram on her perfect green parking strip, before the round paving stones were set in. I don’t remember there being a tree there when I was little, so this is pre-1955. The lawn was so green that you could pick it out from the other side of Green Lake.
Gram by her greenhouse on a snowy day. That is probably my cousin John, which would put the photo in the 50s. You can see that back then (and until I was about 18, when electricity got more expensive), she used to heat it all winter. I have a slide of bouganvillea growing in there, which must have been taken in my late teens. Note the dog house in the background.
Oh, how she loved Skippy. When Skippy died, she said she would never have another cat, till a friend came to her and handed her a kitten.
Penny’s dog house was by the outdoor stairs that were the only access to the half basement. There were no shrubs yet to block the neighbour’s yard. When my grandmother first bought the house for $1500, her mortgage was $15 a month. She worked fulltime as an elevator operator at the old Federal Building and then Standard Furniture and probably did not have much time for gardening. At one point she had to ask the bank to lower her mortgage to $10 a month; she made about 20 cents an hour. Black and white photos were probably taken by my uncle, probably around 1950. She owned the house for over forty years.
The house one lot over was a pretty pale peachy stucco when I was growing up, and it could not even be seen from this spot because by then there stood a hedge of lilacs.
My grandmother married young, then divorced. Her ex-husband got custody of the children by accusing her of being a wild woman. She only got them on weekends. She remarried, and stayed married for about 25 years to Harry, a fisherman. When he hit her while drinking, she divorced him. She used to tell me “I’m too damned stubborn and independent to live with a man.”
The house with the shed dormer across the street was owned by a fascinating woman named Mrs. Lamoreaux. She still lived there when I bought the house in 1980 but unfortunately not for long; I was just getting to know her liberal, literate personality as a grown up when she died.
My grandmother began to garden every inch of the property when she began working from home around the time I was born. She had previously worked as an elevator operator. She lost her job when arthritis prevented her from standing all day; the bosses would not let her sit on a stool in the elevator. After that, she made a living with some gardening and some housecleaning, and when I was born she became a childcare provider with a small daycare in her house and supplemented that income by taking in ironing.
She entered her plants in flower show competitions. I remember that from when I was little, although by the time I was in school she had stopped competing.
She loved that hydrangea next to the steps and put rusty nails under it to help make it blue. There is a big rock right next to the stairs to the sidewalk. Every evening in summer, she sat on that rock to hose water her sloping parking strip lawn.
Hooking rag rugs was one of her winter hobbies. She called the circle hooked rug the “pie plate” pattern, and the stripey one was “hit and miss”. When she had lots of different left over colours, she would make a hit and miss rug…fast and easy.
Every Christmas, she would decorate her blooming hibiscus tree. Note tv tray with Christmas cookies. While I was growing up, I and the other children in her small daycare decorated Christmas cookies every year. The brown chair fabric was so soft and silky to the touch…and I now have that needlepoint chair, the one with the purse on it.
below: her hibiscus in bloom by the front window; I used to have that white china Madonna figurine in my garden here, but it froze and broke one winter. It is on a glass shelf behind the hibiscus. Not miraculously floating in air.
She lowered that bamboo blind every morning to keep the morning sun from scorching her African violets on a table inside. She had a sign at the beginning of this side of the house that read “Follow the fuchsia trail to….” and then as one entered the back garden another sign read “…The Enchanted Forest”.
Roses were another favourite plant, mostly growing in the sunny south end of the back garden.
How she loved pansies and their “little faces”.
I think it was being constructed in my cousin’s kitchen as this fancy counter was not at my grandmother’s house. It may have been a birthday surprise from George and Bob. She refused to cut into it, as I recall, and kept it until it fell apart, as cakes do.
Below: side view of the house cake…with window box, and little ladder going up to back roof (where a door led into the attic rooms; later I had an interior stair/ladder put in). This also was not in Gram’s house, further evidence that cousin George made the cake! I think this is at my uncle’s house, and look, it seems like maybe they had a back up cake as they probably guessed that she would not eat the little red house cake! You can see the trellis, the back windows, kitchen window, living room window with window box and the high-up piano window are all perfect.
I moved to the Long Beach Peninsula on December 24, 1992, and sold my grandmother’s house in 1994. I often wish I had been able to afford to keep it. In my first garden on the Peninsula (at the Sou’wester Lodge), I put a sign in her memory.
I still live surrounded her things: needlepoint chairs, dishes, hooked rugs, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and miss her.