Cheat Day: Tumors, Azaleas and Green Tomato Pickles

Today’s #30days30mealschallenge is a major cheat.  As you can see I have a cancer-load serving of bacon and eggs (because our egg suppliers are still away) green tomato pickles, parsley and sundried tomatoes…out of a about a kilo of tomatoes there are a handful left!

Last night, not interested in the cricket, I decided to phone an old friend (she won’t mind me calling her old) she turned 80 last year.   Her daughter answered and I could tell by her voice something more than the annual visit to her mother was going on.

She said she wanted to meet me as her mother had always spoken well of me. Then she dropped the bomb that her beautiful mother and my old friend has a brain tumour and only has a few months. I guess I knew something was up because I didn’t receive a hand-painted christmas card, out of the blue on New Years Eve I wanted a brandy and dry (her favourite drink) and received no phone call to wish us the best for the new year.

The page is getting blurry. When I reluctantly came back to Sydney in 2005, a sole parent of 3, I started gardening and mowing for friends while I was at uni, trying to create a future for my kids.  My friends and family rallied around me at this time and a friend of a friend gave this lady my phone number and from that day on, I was someone that was charged with the caretaking of her garden.  I was to do some pruning and weeding because apparently mower men don’t weed and due to her severe arthritis she could no longer get down and her gnarled fingers couldn’t grip the secateurs. Our relationship was more than boss and employee, she became like a grandma. Her garden allowed my kids to have dance lessons. As we got to know each other better, we made lots of rude jokes while out in the garden, she’d laugh at my bum crack always hanging out of my shorts, always ask about the kids and gave me some of her paintings.  She loved my stories about political rant letters in the paper and guerilla gardening. I could see that she thought I was of villainous character but she liked me all the same.  I didn’t know then, she was the start of the therapeutic horticulture journey that I am now on.  Back then, it didn’t have a name.  She is very active and to watch someone being weighed down with increasing health burdens isn’t nice to watch – it reminds us of our own mortality and the things we will lose as our life goes on.

She lives in a beautiful spot on the river with river views depending on the growth rate of the Moreton Bay Fig.  The trees are as old as time and the azaleas are at least a hundred years old and taller than me (just over 5ft). They form a hedge. A hedge that has one beautiful flush of flowers a year depending on how much rain we get. Through the years, her garden became part of me.  She loves a lot of plants that I had no affinity with because you can’t eat them but to her they were memories of travels, friends and family.  She taught me about these plants. She was an art teacher at a boys school in a rough area, had a husband with severe health problems and ended up caring for her elderly parents till their deaths and raised a daughter on her own.  She loves to sit on the balcony and look at her garden and it brings her peace through what was a pretty rough journey.  Like most people with a balcony in the trees she puts out a plate for the rainbow lorikeets.  She would call out to me regularly when I was on my belly weeding the azaleas to make sure I hadn’t disappeared entirely.

I’ll never forget the look on her face when I went north for a couple of years and she had to replace me. It was then that I realised that to some people, family isn’t just blood relatives. When the universe propelled me back to Sydney again, heartbroken by life I would do a few jobs for her like getting down her winter blankets, taking her shopping for plants or just having a coffee. I was determined to leave the gardening “career” behind but realising now, it’s one of the only things that I enjoy and gardeners are usually awesome, passionate people.

Last year I took her a jar of green tomato pickles which she loved.  She admitted to sitting and eating it by the spoonful in front of the tele. I gave her some more and she sold them at church.  I started writing to her last night to let her know what a big part of my life she’s been and how lucky we’ve been to spend so much time in a beautiful garden. Eyes are leaking again but so glad she won’t need the stair chair to get up to the balcony from the ground floor to look at her river and azaleas and she will get to go in her piece of paradise that she has nurtured and loved for 80 years.

I hope I can take her some green tomato pickles and we can sit on the verandah and watch the river with a brandy and dry before she goes.


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