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Archive for the ‘More Home Than Glass’ Category

I recently wrote a magazine article about an expansive Healdsburg garden with a heavy emphasis on succulents and other low-water plants. After touring the garden with the woman who’d designed it, one glaring fact emerged: “low-water” does not mean no-water, nor does it mean low-maintenance. The garden’s lushness seemed to owe much to a sophisticated irrigation system (set in accordance with strict local limits on water usage) and a team of two gardeners who visit for four to five hours a week. In addition, an arborist visits annually to check on the trees, and a landscape contractor comes once a year as well, for a big late-winter cleanup.

This isn’t the first time that a “lifestyle” assignment has made me just a little bit envious, but with this one I found myself coveting not so much the garden as the team behind it. How we could have used these folks eight years ago, the first time we laid eyes on the 4000-square-foot pile of dirt and weeds that made up our new backyard. I for one felt woozy at the prospect of figuring out what to do with it, given that the outdoor spaces of my past dwellings had consisted of a small balcony, a fire escape, and a porch the size of a twin bed. Nothing green had lived for long on any of them.

At first we threw wildflower seeds at the problem. Peter, who had grown up gardening with his parents and had a natural affinity for it, always seemed to consider himself a farmer first, winemaker second. So he knew what he was doing as he dug out weeds, rocks, and roots; raked and rototilled; hand-sowed the seeds; fertilized; and watered. Sure enough by our first full summer in the house, the yard was an explosion of sky lupin, mountain plox, farewell-to-spring, and California poppy.

During those early years, we left the front of the house alone, mainly because its only green spot was a sloped triangle dominated by a tangle of acacia trees. Not much to look at, but they afforded some privacy. Then PG&E took issue with the acacias, which were growing too close to power lines, and cut them down. Suddenly that front “yard” was abruptly reduced to a big patch of stumps.

With work demands ramping up for both of us and a toddler in the house, this time we agreed to outsource, and we somehow found a designer who was willing to work within our limited budget—a woman in her early 50s named Julia who had grown up in Marin and earned her landscape architecture degree at Berkeley. She and I met a few times to talk about color and texture, and the realistic limits to what Peter and I could take on as far as maintenance and watering. Then we went shopping together at Home Depot, where we bought native grasses, succulents, kangaroo paw and lamb’s ear plants, barberry and buddleia bushes, irises, and an olive tree.

Peter worked with a helper on the installation, and our front garden emerged. It looked pretty minimal at first—reminding me of the gardening adage that various family members had invoked over the years: Sleep, Creep, LeapSleep applies to that first year after you plant new plants, when they’re busy forming a root system and nothing much happens above ground. The second year, the plant is still focused on its root system, but new foliage and flowers start to creep into view. Year three: leaping. The roots are established, and flowers and foliage finally look the way you’d hoped they would when you first planted.

Sure enough, a few years later Julia’s garden came to life. But by that time, our backyard was a different story. Those Year One wildflowers had lasted for a single season, and after that Peter had created a meadow by planting bunch grass and weeding dutifully, maintaining a certain controlled chaos. Until he couldn’t. I’m a learn-by-doing sort, and so one August day almost three years ago now, he walked me through each gardening task, offering careful and elaborate explanations. He could no longer climb stairs, so he watched from the deck above as I watered the four wine barrels he’d planted with strawberries and arugula—all the while providing a running critique of my watering technique, in a way that would have infuriated me a month earlier but now just made me laugh, and cry. And promptly forget pretty much everything he had just told me.

Big sloped yards that sit under eucalyptus and pine trees and are exposed to strong coastal winds don’t take kindly to neglect. Nine months after my gardening tutorial, with the chaos no longer controlled, the yard looked decidedly more “vacant lot” than “meadow.” So I decided to call Julia. It had been two years since we’d spoken, so I wasn’t too surprised that her number was no longer in service. Then I Googled her name to find her new number, and instead found her obituary. Bigger surprise. She’d died of cancer as well, two months after Peter. Briefly, my vacant-lot backyard seemed a fine fit for the state of things, for the loss of a lovely woman in her prime who had rowed in the Bay, tended her garden, was loved by her husband and kids.

Eventually I did find help from a surfer-artist-landscaper who owns a native plant nursery nearby. Dan listened as I talked, probably too much, about every last thing Peter and Julia had done to create and maintain the lush wildness we’d briefly enjoyed. Then he drew a sketch of a path that would meander through the yard, with small Sonoma fieldstone boulders and clusters of black sage, bunch grass, and coyote brush on either side. He and his partner worked on the plan while Willa and I were on a summer trip, and when we got back, I was struck by how a simple path that didn’t really lead to anything still managed to give a sense of order and beauty to the space.

The next spring, we planted artemesia, gumplant, and still more bunch grass along our driveway—an area that Willa’s now in charge of watering. Everywhere I look I see the things I want to do next, and I hope she’ll be my partner in crime. I’d like to put trellises or a living wall against the bare, windowless back of the house, plant wildflowers along a side path, and ring our front plum tree with stones. I’d like to find someone more artistic than I am to paint different images on a few of the wide mossy panels of our back wooden fence. Maybe we’ll paint one a year, creating something like the Lakota winter counts I learned about while editing an article years ago. Year of the Corn Feast, Year of the Last Great Buffalo Hunt, Year the Stars Fell. Year of the Path.

 

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I forgot that Rieslings age well. It has something to do with a flavor compound with a 38-character name (TDN for short). Let this varietal age for too long and it starts to smell of kerosene—but if you give it just a few years, you’ll likely hit its sweet spot. This is one of those esoteric oenological tidbits my late husband taught me—filed away in a corner of my brain right next to the fact that Pediacoccus infections are bad, but Brettanomyces infections can be good—and that “aroma of geraniol” is an insult, and “aroma of pencil shavings” is a compliment.

So when a friend and I opened the last bottle I had of Peter’s 2008 Sierra Foothills Riesling this September, on the second anniversary of his death, I felt that I had to warn her: “This could be undrinkable.” Instead, it was delicious—“like nectar,” is how my friend described it. And in that moment, forgetting all of Peter’s lessons about Riesling, nothing about this wine made sense. Not its crystal-clear, pale yellow color, its delicate floral nose, its light, dry mouthfeel, its fruit. Not the absence of the person who made it.

Peter died at age 44, just 14 months after his diagnosis of non-small-cell adenocarcinoma. It was a mystery cancer of unknown primary origin that behaved like lung cancer, and upon diagnosis it was already evident in his lungs, right shoulder, and brain. For much of those 14 months, our family was able to live a kind of peaceful “new normal”—treatment cycles, breaks from treatment, quietly trying to observe and celebrate life’s big moments and small ones. His serenity and courage in the face of all of this was astounding, even to those who knew him well enough to expect nothing less.

For a while during this period, I intended to give The Home Glass—which began as Marin Magazine’s wine blog back in 2008 and which I continued to write until 2011—a reboot. I planned to document the reboot forced upon our lives, with wine, spirits, food, and family as the focus. But ultimately, even the few hours this would have involved seemed too much to give up in a year when time felt so precious and so fleeting. Better to spend those hours eating tacos and drinking margaritas with someone unparalleled in his talents for making both.

Oddly enough, it was stumbling on NPR producer Rachel Ward’s brilliant post on Medium, “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago,” that brought me back here—particularly these lines:

When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life. Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn’t a foot wide anymoreit’s as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood.

I feel a version of this and have felt it almost since the moment we learned of Peter’s diagnosis. Everything was instantly amplified then and is amplified still: love, beauty, fear, longing, sadness, anger, more beauty, more love. It helps that my agnostic husband believed he’d come back to us in nature in some form—so when the trees catch light in a certain way, or a hummingbird watches closely as our daughter makes chalk drawings in our driveway, I have to wonder.

Willa often asks me how old her dad is. It’s almost never “how old would he be” if he were alive, because she’s six and is only just starting to wrap her mind around the conditional. I love answering all her questions about Peter except this one, because this one makes me stop and do an excruciating bit of math. Last Saturday he would have turned 47. When I think of Peter at 44, I can picture a 44-year-old person that I knew and loved and got to a spend a year memorizing. Forty-four-year-old Peter feels like a gift that I can still vividly recall and embrace and enjoy. But I don’t know 47-year-old Peter. I never will, and saying the age that he would have been out loud forces me to stare the magnitude of our loss straight in the face, in a way I almost never do.

Life doesn’t always make sense. White wines don’t age well, except for the ones that do. People grow older, except for the ones that don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to sit back and take in that infinite spectrum from happy to sad. But one thing that always makes me feel better is observing and celebrating those details of life—domestic, culinary, seasonal—that remind me of Peter every day. And this seems a good place to record those details—once a month, at least. I promise that not every post will be this long or this personal—but do expect, on occasion, more home than glass.

 

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