Mine was a smallish world on a dead-end road filled with a big personality across the street, a truth my neighbor would have laughed at. There is no doubt in my mind that she would qualify for The Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met award; or at least her name would perch way high on the list. She stepped off the stage from another era; and yet, although a senior citizen when I met her, she was just as "hip" as any teenager in her outlook on life. My daughter Stephanie's words: "Ann, the gardner. She sure had spunk". In short, she was timeless; she dwelt in the moment while encapsulating the courtly manners from the age when our houses were new.
Ann had become my 'gardening buddy' and good friend. Acquaintance had slowly simmered, with a shared interest in rich soil, seeds and resultant green growth thrown into the pot until a lovely stew of shared experiences enriched and blended our lives.
To find us, you would cross the railroad tracks at Ford Street, and enter the original part of town where there was a picturesque assortment of wood frame houses, most over 100 years old and sitting on ample lots dotted with mature landscaping. The spaciousness of those lots provided plenty of room for those with a propensity to dig in the dirt. And yes, we had that propensity. The fact that our houses sat across from each other allowed for a watchfulness that wove our lives together.
Ann had lived in that lovely Queen Anne-style home 50 years (she claimed the style to fit her name), first while her parents were alive and she was a young woman, and then alone, with her tabby cat Pumpkin who kept her company and the mice population to a minimum. Fifty years. She had never married, but she and the house seemed to have grown together and become the ones I knew. Both were stately and full of character, if a little weathered around the edges.
My friend would emerge from her comfortable cocoon at the faintest light of dawn in her usual blue denim pants and white blouse, her thick grey hair cut short for ease of care. This woman knew about the philosophy of living simply before it became a fad. If I had gotten up unusually early, I would see her from my kitchen sink window, her stout form swaying back and forth, leaving fresh tracks on the still-wet lawn. She was making her 'rounds'. Knees that 'talked back' and arthritis slowed her down some, but she kept going long after others would have thrown in their trowels. Never lazy, she would have her day's work done about the time I would be opening my eyes.
It was her gardens, you see: they needed her. I always admired the beauty and bounty she could coax from the earth, and this from a woman who could no longer get down on her knees! Every spring she would reveal one of her secrets of success by having a friend dump a dark, steaming pile of aging manure on her front curb. This pile would slowly diminish as she 'barrowed it away and dug it into her waiting beds. We always had an unstated competition going as to who could get their peas to produce full fat pods the earliest. She always won, standing by her voluptuous vines, her pale blue eyes twinkling behind wire rims while trying to hide a triumphant smile. “Would you like to take some home for dinner?” put the crowning touch on her good-natured victory.
I considered it a privilege when she would wander over slowly, seeing me at some gardening task. I would gladly stop and show her my latest triumph or tragedy, and receive soft-spoken and kind words in return, with wisdom gathered the hard way thrown in as an afterthought. She might invite me for another tour of her well-kept beds, naming and pointing to each plant friend, acknowledging it's growth or lovely flowering. Some of her trees and shrubs had pre-dated her arrival, and there had developed in the subsequent verdant growth intimate knowledge and connection.
Ann had a structure at the side of her property that I tried hard not to be envious of: A glorious wood and glass hot house, now a faded forest green. In previous years, she had sold and specialized in every sort of geranium available. Now it sported a few flats of bedding plants and vegetable seedlings, leaving the remaining space looking cavernous. This structure also left me wondering how much there was to this woman that I didn't know about?
The height of privilege was to be invited into her kitchen to 'sit awhile'. I would happily drop into a wooden chair while she prepared tea in her homey and cozy kitchen, the sun streaming in from generous windows onto what must have been an original linoleum floor. These windows also gave a front row seat to what was happening outside in her various garden beds, even allowing us to spy on the soft-stepping deer who treated her garden as their own grazing ground. Inside everything was clean and tidy. It spoke of her industriousness and upbringing.
Her life was straightforward, having prescribed parameters and strongly-held values, and even opinions. She never missed attending the Baptist Church downtown on Sundays. On Thursday mornings you would see her, like clockwork, back out her long Cadillac from her detached garage to join her hiking group on treks that would have broken my younger body. Once a week she would walk to town and join friends for lunch, weather permitting. And in turn, these friends would visit her on a regular basis. They would come and go, but they would never leave with empty hands. Ann always sent you away with a nosegay of flowers, a few home grown potatoes, an extra plant she had started from seed, or a hank of fragrant mint. She was generous, but never ostentatious.
It was during those longer visits sipping steaming tea that I would learn more of who Ann McCune really was. In younger years, she had made thorough preparation to become a school teacher, and while teaching, made the discovery that she really didn't like it at all! This was when her father built the hot house for her, and she became an entrepreneur nurserywoman, showing an independence that was ahead of her time. While munching on shortbread, she threw out the fact that she had read every single book Louis L'Amour had ever written, and loved the rough and ready life that he wrote about so well. I had no trouble fitting this into the imaginary framework built as she shared bits and pieces of her dreams and aspirations.
One of my happiest memories is of the few families that made up the end of the road, sitting outside around a kiddie pool on a hot day, our feet dangling in the cool water. We had stepped out into the unknown and formed a Poetry Club, adults and children slide. Each week we would come together, having either written a poem ourselves, or having found one written by someone else, and read it aloud to the whole group. I smile as I remember one particular day, with the Conleys, Emegeene, ourselves and Ann, all sitting around that little plastic pool, feet swishing, with Ann gathering up the courage to share a poem she had written herself. Finally, she took a deep breath and read these words that surprised us all, although they shouldn't have:
Walking in the woods
we see many lakes and pools.
If the sky is just right
there are reflections of nature's beauty
on the water.
Some are very clear
Some fade away
As the light in the sky changes.
Are we reflections of God's image
in our daily lives?
Let our light shine daily.
Not too long after that memorable day, health forced Ann to leave her beloved home and gardens and take up residence in an assisted living home at the edge of town. We were all thankful that she could still watch the deer grazing and have a few potted plants on her patio to care for. Her unflappable, steady heart took this in stride, like other life changes, showing us the way once again.
Ann ended up being a teacher after all--always a kind or instructive word, a clever remark; she was a shy but sociable woman who could have turned inward and shut the world out, but didn't. She had no idea the imprint she made upon my life; it would be as unnoticed to her as the prints she left long ago on the morning dew at the end of the road.