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My Noe Valley Filoli
By Mary Hower
Nine years ago, when I first saw the overgrown backyard of our fixer-upper house, I felt like a mother falling in love with all the potential of her newborn and overlooking the reality of the hard work ahead. As I scythed my way into shoulder-high crabgrass, I only saw the verdant lawn of the future. Tripping over ivy and scotch broom that invaded every inch, I was sure it would only be a few weeks until my backyard would be another Filoli, the lush formal garden down the Peninsula located on the rolling grounds of an old estate. No matter that blackberry vines strangled the sad Mexican sage and banana cactus. No matter that the only reason my fence hadn't completely fallen over into the neighbor's yard was that a massive wall of ivy anchored it in place.
Ah yes, in just a few weeks, a carpet of bulbs would spring up from under my feet, rose bushes would edge the borders of the yard, and lush ferns would grow profusely in the shaded areas. Soon after escrow closed, I'd send out the invitations, and my guests would lounge here, sipping ice tea and lemonade under umbrella tables and complimenting me on my unique landscaping. Every morning I'd float out in my Gatsby-era white dress and clip tulips and gladiolas for the multitude of vases that would brighten every room of our home.
Blinded by my vision of Filoli II, I tripped over a bamboo hut with no roof that stood camouflaged in the scotch broom. Was there a pit for sacrificing animals, too? And why no roof?
"What's this?" I asked my new neighbor, Al. His introduction that morning had been hastily followed by a plea to fix the fence.
"That's where the old tenants lay out in the sun," Al said.
"But I don't get it -- why'd they need these walls around them for sunbathing?"
Al cleared his throat. "Well, I'm not really sure -- I mean, I never really saw them, exactly." He looked down at his shoes, avoiding my eyes. "Umm -- I think they were naked."
Since I didn't quite have a place for naked sunbathers in my vision of Filoli, I ripped the hut out and set it on the curb for hauling. But as I did, I noticed something else. Like Nancy Drew hot on the trail of a mystery, I clued into an array of faded plastic markers strewn at the edges of the yard. "Strawberry," "azalea," and "impatiens," they read. Hmm, those should have grown fine here. Terracotta pots with dirt still in them yawned emptily. What had happened? Why had the previous gardeners failed? Too busy with nude sunbathing?
Nancy Drew soon had her answer a few weeks later when I realized Filoli might need more work than I'd planned. On the recommendation of a savvy friend, I hired Jeannie.
"I'm not really a gardener," Jeannie said. "I mean, I do it for a living, but I'm more an artist -- I'll give you a good rate."
Thinking an artist's eye would certainly help with the landscaping, I hired her and sent her to rev up the rototiller. As soon as the blades touched the ground, the rototiller came to a literal grinding halt. It seemed there was a rock. She revved it again. Same grinding halt. It seemed there was another rock.
"Oh yeah," said Al, watching from over the fence, which had fallen over a few more feet. "This whole hill used to be a rock quarry. You can't use a rototiller -- have to dig those babies out with a pickaxe."
Great. I'd stumbled on "The Mystery of the Old Rock Quarry." I wondered how many former gardeners were buried beneath my backyard, dead from trying to pick out the rocks.
"What kind of rock is this?" I asked Al, picking up the red and brown, meteor-sized chunk.
"It's called chit."
I noted the resemblance of the sound of this word to the word alternately known as dog-do.
"This is gonna cost you a few more bucks," said Jeannie, who failed to mention the possibility of circumventing the problem by building raised beds above ground. As I kissed my husband's and my vacation trip to Maui goodbye, Jeannie brought in three more of her artist friends to help out. Not exactly Arnold Schwarzeneggers, the artists took breaks every half-hour for espresso and debates about Diebenkorn and Jim Dine. It would take them months to finish at this rate, so I let them go after they'd made a three-week pass at the yard.
When I corralled my friend Kathryn into helping me dig out more rocks, I guess I left out a few more details. Filoli was starting to fade. Now I just wanted a small space to sit in a wicker chair.
"It'll be great," she said. "I used to garden as a child with my Italian grandfather." Her eyes grew misty. "He had such strong hands."
We started in February. In March, the rosy picture of Grandpa and Kathryn in her yellow sundress and watering can began to disappear when it took us an entire week to pick and shovel out a foot of ground. By April, Kathryn's Hallmark memories had turned into Stephen King nightmares when we hauled out three stubborn tree stumps and a U-haul full of ivy that had lived there decades longer than our oldest neighbor. May followed, with a break to visit our chiropractors.
But we were stubborn or maybe hooked -- after all, we were both born under earth signs. In the midsummer fog, Kathryn and I sat down on one of the seven garbage cans of rocks we'd unearthed, panting and wiping sweat from our faces. Just then, a wild whoop went up from the houses and apartments nearby.
"Do you think they're cheering for us?" I asked Kathryn. Her face was entirely streaked with dirt except where sweat had washed tiny rivulets.
"No, I think the Giants just hit a home run." She took a slug of blue Gatorade. "You remember -- baseball? The thing normal people do on weekends?"
In our weekday lives, Kathryn was working on a new relationship and trying to decide whether to change careers. I was raising money for a local nonprofit to build new facilities, and I had millions of dollars left to go. It began to seem fitting that we were spending our weekends picking and pulling out rocks.
As if to urge us on, unexpected treasures came to the surface as we dug. Kathryn unearthed a plastic pre-Barbie doll with no head and a rusted toy gun. We eventually found a yellow toy dump truck and seven rainbow-colored marbles. With each toy, we began to imagine the children who had played there in the yard.
"I wonder if they had blond or brown or black or red hair and what color their eyes were," I said. "I wonder what their names were."
"I wonder if they had to wear down jackets in the summer fog," Kathryn said, shivering.
We found history, too. Old bottles from the turn of the century hinted at scenes of the old quarry workers eating lunch. A 1940s Revlon compact still contained its rouge, and a "Liquid Varnish" bottle was surely the origin of my house's faux-mahogany trim, a style from the '20s and '30s.
That fall, as the yard lay ready for planting, Kathryn's relationship was on track, and she was leaving her clerical job to become a therapist. As for me, the donations had begun to pour in, and other ground had been broken -- the new building for my nonprofit was finally going up. Our rocks had taught us to overcome our obstacles, and we had stronger biceps, too. The Giants did fine without us.
This spring, as I walk out in my garden, I carry my new baby boy Joey. My vision of Filoli has transformed into a play area for him, with a little slide and a playhouse. I see us here among the Irish moss, the lavender, santolina, and rosemary that Kathryn and I planted. The good rains have undone the fall drought, and it will be a couple of months before I have to check the watering timer to see if the batteries still work or shoo the spiders from their contented webs amid the curled hose. Crabgrass has edged its way back in along with a dozen dandelions, but the Mexican sage, a survivor from the previous tenants, greets me with its passionate purple flowers. Primroses beckon, their jewel-toned reds, blues, and yellows warmly blanketed in a layer of mulch I'd spread last fall.
And I am thankful again for those rocks. They have taught me patience and persistence. They have shown how to love the process of gardening as much as the end result. Now, as the blooms from the plum trees cover my verdant lawn like snow, I wonder -- what lessons await me this year?
Mary Hower is a writer whose essays have appeared in Salon.com, Threepenny Review, and KQED's "Perspectives." She also is a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations. Hower reports that her garden is doing well, "especially when I water it."
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