Published in Premier Issue of Human/Kind Journal Jan 2019
Awarded Pushcart Nominee
Away and Within
Youth. Idealized freedom, a time of rustic camping among trees, mountain vistas, the breath of earth—when nature held me closest to rapture. Did I consider a Maker? In retrospect, what held more sway was power of away and within; a ritual of trees and sky, and experimentation, when raw euphoria was key to my spiritual experience.
We were, after all, flower children. Once, on a mountain hike near Aspen, when all ingredients were conducive, my heart sang. Mescaline heightened my senses. Roar and ripple of creek, ethereal mid-day mountain-light, and warmth of baking grasses and stone; thrill of a new birdsong, and a community of peers. In that illusory moment, I only received. Much later, I might learn to return the blessing.
my life within gardens-
was it escape,
or deeper digging?
The Gardening Years
MARY ELLEN GAMBUTTI | Professional Gardener, Writer
First published in The Remembered Arts Journal, 2017
Permanent Home: A Memoir, 2019
I returned to school in my 30’s and pursued a career in horticulture, practiced gardening as art, created personal garden spaces for 15 years.
LATE SNOWS PILED UP against the sturdy, metal-framed, plastic-covered greenhouses. March wind blustered down each row of the range numbered 1 through 6. We four women part-timers, in our 30’s, dressed for the weather–I wore a blue down vest and a wool cap—and stood at a worktable in the first greenhouse to transplant seedlings. A large kerosene furnace at the rear of our hoop house supplied just enough heat to keep the temperature above freezing for tiny plants in plastic flats lined up on the gravel floor. We worked without gloves to finesse the new growth from the potting mix into the next larger plastic cell. It was tedious work, but we amused ourselves with our own chatter and the sound of a rock station. On sunny days, the greenhouse was deliciously warm, and we peeled off our layers to work in sweatshirts.
At 34, I decided to pursue my love of plants as a second career. I enrolled in the horticulture program at Temple’s Ambler campus, which had its roots as a Horticulture school for women. I took a part-time job in a prestigious Philadelphia garden center and nursery, Meadowbrook Farms. The manager, whose name was John, was an expert grower; a 6 foot, wiry, wry-humored boss, with an unsophisticated demeanor. He moved quickly and decisively as he monitored and recorded plant progress, and directed staff. The main glass-house overflowed with decorative greenery. Impressive collections of tropical plants, giant Begonias, staked Lilies, and herbs thickly populated gliding benches. I was a sponge for the wealth of information John imparted in his clipped style.
When the crocus bloomed, plant orders flowed in from landscapers, collectors, and designers, many of whom would compete in the Philadelphia Flower Show. Mr. Lyddon Pennock, Meadowbrook’s resident owner, held a prominent place in the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, which sponsored the show. John’s grand, yearly Meadowbrook entry featured double borders, Boxwood hedges, a classical English garden complete with Delphiniums, and always the hallmark gazebo.
I found freedom in the garden and nature since my 1950’s childhood, when I shadowed my Nana in her New Jersey garden. I told John I’d like to continue working that summer, and he offered me a kind of apprenticeship in the wide double borders. With a sumptuous pallet of perennials at my disposal, I got right to work. I staked the towering orange Helianthus, the 7-foot tall Elecampane daisy of herbal lore, the stiff-stemmed magenta Asters, and the steel-blue Globe Thistle. I divided overgrown clumps with a sharp spade, transplanted and replaced. I worked in tiny detail with the embroidery of alpines at the stone edge. Some sweltering afternoons, I might be found pruning shrubs along the lush, shady walk, but rarely resting on the iron bench.
Mr. Pennock appeared and stooped to admire a plant. He produced his red-handled Felco pruner from his back pocket. From a Philadelphia family of floral designers, he was tall and slender like John, but had a refined, aristocratic air, in contrast to John’s impulsivity. Mr. P.’s white hair had a gentle wave. He wore a bowtie on his crisp shirt, with the sleeves rolled up: a working artist. His well-spoken, quietly cheerful comments were motivating. “This Blue Lace Cap Hydrangea is a good as any perennial,” he noted, impressing on me his high regard for a rare plant, for perennials in general, and, I hoped, my contribution to their care.
Patrons became familiar with me as they entered down the garden walk. Some asked me if I would care for their private gardens. I enjoyed exploring those lush suburban properties, pruning shrubs, grooming perennials, and devising ways to use existing plants to best advantage. I devoured colorful garden design books, both classics, and current trends. I drew inspiration from Lanning Roper and Russell Page, two great landscape gardeners, and from Gertrude Jekyll, the garden artist, and writer, who used color gradients and large drifts of perennials. I was captivated by the style of the Dutch landscape designers, who use enormous wild-looking sweeps of ornamental grasses and perennials that change color and texture with the seasons.
I dubbed my itinerant practice, “The Cottage Gardener: Garden Design, Installation and Care”. I worked in the charming, old-world style Chestnut Hill, Germantown, and Mainline landscapes, with their stone walls and terraces, sunken gardens, reflecting pools and fountains, old trees and hedges, flowering shrubs, and all varieties of perennials. I frequented Morris Arboretum, and Longwood Gardens, and continued my horticulture training. My strength, stamina, and skill grew, and my creativity flourished in the beauty of these rustic period settings.
After several years, my husband and I bought a Victorian home and barn on an acre at the upper reaches of Bucks County. We carved out our mini-farm, added a 40’ hoop house, vegetable plots, double perennial borders, two little prairie meadows, native and exotic trees, and shrubs, and fruit trees. Fancy chickens and dwarf goats rounded out the bucolic setting. One of my goals was to grow “specialty” flowers; unusual annuals and perennials for cutting. The frugal nature and hard work of my enterprise did not outweigh my sheer joy in the endeavor. I grew row after row of bright hot Zinnia pinwheels and Mammoth Sunflowers, as well as the chocolate, sunset-hued and yellows. Clouds of Baby Breath, red and pink Sweet William, and flat-headed golden Yarrow were harvested in buckets with the right conditioner for the best quality. The glowing beauty of a morning’s masses of flowers was my reward for the pains of growing.
Gardens transformed me. From the office to the classroom, to Meadowbrook and beyond, my life has been enriched by plants. In gardens, old and new, I have learned that nothing is static; growth and change are life. As I age, my wishlist of plants has become whittled down, but I cannot do without them. And less is often easier to manage.
Photograph: “Meadowbrook Farm, Rydal, PA” by Mary Ellen Gambutti
Double Border designed by Charles Cresson
Growing Cut Flowers
I took this photo during our first reunion, and the joy is palpable. Karen, my 1/2-sister, cousins Lawrence and Helen Cox, and my birth mother, Leila. Antioch Churchyard, Greenville, SC, where many of our ancestors are at rest.
Quartet of Poetic Forms
She Couldn't Say
By Mary Ellen Gambutti
"Remember, she couldn't answer your questions without revealing everything. If you hadn't searched for her she would have taken all her secrets to the grave."
Your words stung. Our only chance the year before she vanished—in and out of our lives. Could I be grateful for all that came of it? The rarity of our meeting? Mute about my father--maybe she strained to remember—the truth ever elusive. Her life of neglect and desperation well known to you; abandoned as a toddler to her own poor parents’ shack. And I—longing for my own truth—flew to you both. Sister, you suspected there were others, but she couldn't say.
worn wooden bench—
pink crepe myrtle
bright above her sadness
Happenstance Prose Poem By Mary Ellen Gambutti
Was there intention in Virgo? Carolina’s cloud-masked stars glimmered weakly on my origins. September birthdays brought sweaters and school-time, parties postponed by a typhoon’s tempest and Texas hurricane. Storms and swoons of uncertainty. The profanity of accident. Prophecy of place and time. Meant to be--raison d’etre--the designated date, my unjoyful occurrence. Unloved Leila, left alone. Always lonely. Abandoned—first she, then I. Could she, on rising from her birthing bed, consider beyond surrender, that facts would be muddled, muddied? That papers given my fosterers would be fabricated, a flimsy truth? That, in a mystery hour, no tiny feet impressed?
Schoolmates knew their truths. I burned to tell some uncertain story and had only abstractions. Only, it happened! My birth happened. This is my story, I told them: “Not this mother, but another mother.” I couldn’t tell them what he told me. “She died,” he said, “in a car,” with others, maybe girls and boys, maybe a man who would be my father. A family died. He must have lied; adopted dad. “They’re gone,” he said. He must have meant to console: “You have us.”
I tell them on the playground, “I’m adopted.” That’s good, we all decide. Because I have parents. People take care of me. I’m different; a mystery. Mystified. I learn a story that came from out of the blue, blue like a September sky, like this sapphire birthstone worn on my seventh birthday, soon lost.
Remembering Agnes Remembering
Agnes, my mother, turned ninety-six this August. The elder of her two adopted daughters, it’s fallen to me to keep connected with her and the nursing home staff in Pennsylvania. I’m fine with this obligation to the only mother I’ve ever known.
Mom's cousin Janet taped Mom on her ninety-fourth birthday:
Tape clip 1. “Dad’s family had a dairy farm in Saltillo, Pa. I remember a cave in the hillside where they stored milk and jarred goods. A stream ran through the cave.”
I remember Agnes
1. sat on the floor and played picture card games with me - Rustler, Old Maid, Go Fish
2. sewed my clothes and my dolls’ clothes
3. was a child at heart. She loved nature’s creatures--insects, animals, especially dogs. When we lived in Tokyo, she put jam and bread out for a rhinoceros beetle, which it seemed to enjoy.
Tape clip 2. “Mom, Dad, my brother, Vincent and I lived in Orbisonia. Vincent was afraid of Dad's horse. Vince had a nightmare the horse was down in the yard eating the dog. Once, Dad brought the horse into the house as a joke. It scared Vince to death...My mom canned fruit in Orbisonia. We lived in the country until I finished first grade. I remember riding to school in a horse- drawn sleigh.”
I remember Agnes
4. gave up her nursing career to be an Air Force officer's wife and to adopt me
5. ice-skated with me when we lived in New Jersey
6. used a fly-swatter on me when she was furious. She had a cruel streak
Tape clip 3. “We moved to New York City on West Broadway in the Village, when the coal mines closed in 1928. I went to school near Washington Square Park. I jumped rope in the street, played on the roof of Dad’s auto repair shop across the street. We moved to W.58th Street, across from Roosevelt Hospital when I started high school. It was nice to live so close to Central Park."
I remember Agnes
7. was lonely when Dad was away on duty
8. played popular music on the radio and laughed out loud at T.V. comedy
Tape clip 4. “My diary is falling apart. Kept it from 1939-1941 when I was sweet on Al and when we were courting. Not easy to love a seminarian. He left the Paulist Brothers in Baltimore to marry me. His mother pushed him to be a priest. You have no idea what a vamp I was! I went down to DC to visit Cousin Elsie and Aunt Katherine, and we took him out to dinner. But I never kept him from doing what he wanted to do. We married after the war, then he enlisted in the Air Force.”
I remember Agnes
9. inflicted wounds. She told me she never understood me, was rarely affectionate
10. had a great laugh, was witty; sometimes biting
11. her mother, my Nana, was her best friend. Like Mom, she knitted, sewed, quilted
I’m sipping a diet chocolate shake I just blended down here in Florida. Wonder what she had for lunch in Pennsylvania. In two weeks I’ll visit Mom for two weeks. My childhood wasn’t easy. So many moves and transitions in an Air Force family.
I learned I was adopted at age six. Wondered who my “real” family was until I searched and found my birth mother when I was 40. She died a year later. Last year I learned by DNA testing and determined who my father was. Now I have connected with two maternal half-sisters and three paternal half-sisters and half-brother.
My parents, Nana, and my younger sister left our New Jersey home for California in 1976, when my daughter was four, for my father’s second career with the C.I.A., and a deaconship in Los Angeles diocese. Mom and I kept intermittent contact until Dad died, when I packed up her household, sold her home of twenty-seven years, and brought her and my ninety-seven year old Nana back to Pa where I’d lived since 1983. I might have kept her with me after Nana died, but she wanted her independence. My brain hemorrhage at age fifty-seven made it impossible for me to care for her as her needs increased. We all do what we can.
a role model for impatience
Mom dreaded cooking and gardening
so, I learned both from her mother
never a good listener,
hearing aids now
"Don’t forget to call me!”
but she rarely
picks up the phone
My personal Essay, Hurry Back is Published in Portland Metrozine
Please read here:
My loving adoptive mother
August 10, 1922- July 11, 2020
Rest in Peace
Art of Language by Mary Ellen Gambutti
Only in my mind can I talk. What about these neuron dashes across the dark screen of my injured brain? Those are the words I cannot form. Nerve signals to my face, tongue and mouth muscles are jammed. Held up. Can’t get through. So, I signal with my left hand to my husband through the bed rails. My right is dead weight.
They tell me each day brings incremental change; that recovery is gradual healing. But, I can’t see improvement. I realize I must learn it all again; that there is no option. To speak, to manipulate my fingers, lift my arm, to stand and walk. And I know in my heart the journey will have no end.
My therapist addresses pictorial recognition. I struggle to make sense of her colorful images, attempt to verbalize what it is I see, although vision, itself, is now impaired. “Mom works in the kitchen. Children play in the yard.” Simply say what is. Interpret stories of dogs and cats, like in a grade school reader. But I can’t read. And I’m painfully aware what I’m saying isn’t right. Let’s move to the next round: “What does not belong here? Say what’s wrong with the picture.”
Everything is wrong with the picture of whom I now am. Once, an active middle-aged woman, I’m slumped in a wheelchair. Crave sleep. This hemorrhage, out of nowhere. This brain insult. Once, a landscape gardener and designer, writer, wife, mother, daughter. Does this person I don’t recognize leave, and myself return to my family? My friends? To myself? At times, I have little hope.
But the speech therapist tells me, “Apraxia is a defect of motor planning.” She says, “Keep working to say what you mean. Practice.” Still, what comes out sounds much different from what I want to say. “Slow down, take your time.”
My words are baby talk–how a child begins to speak–jumbled. But this is a horror—not a delight–gobbledygook. Even the hands of the clock make no sense. Numbers. Impossible to make myself understood on the phone; to converse. I try, and out comes nonsense. Words flow meaningless.
Will I put my feelings into words? Expression must return to bring me to life. I learn again the art of language–to speak a new language. And it is my own.
My piece, "Without Music" has been included in two anthologies by Scars Publications and Cc and D link here:
and here for the Anthology on Amazon '2020 In A Flash'
Memoir in Progress
I write to find the truth in my experience. In my new book, I trace my life as an adoptive Air Force officer's daughter in the 1950's and 1960's, and my search and reunion with my natural family.
Mary Ellen Gambutti
Human/Kind Journal Issue 1.4
several of my images with haiku have appeared on-line in 'Daily Haiga.'