For most everyone else, I imagine it was just another Saturday morning–that summer day in 2000 when I dragged myself out of bed, brokenhearted over the end of yet another relationship. This romance, with an accomplished artisanal bread baker, had been brief—a scant two months–after which the man in question had delivered the tried and true breakup speech: “It’s not you.…”
He was a few years younger than I; slender, pale, and rather distinguished, a vision to behold with a simple white baker’s apron wrapped around his jeans. His academic background was in mathematics, and his twin passions were fly fishing and astronomy. His apartment was charmingly monastic, the walls decorated with reproduction portraits of beloved classical composers. When he removed his glasses for the night he was effectively blind, and his blinking innocence reminded me of a baby opossum.
I took a cup of coffee out to the front porch and sat down at the top of the steps to reflect on my apparent inability to maintain a relationship–other than with my animal friends. My garden, in spite of its location on a busy street facing a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, was my refuge at such times, its happy hum of birds and dragonflies a dependable antidote to despondency. Globes of boxwood floated in a sea of columbines, geranium, and veronica beneath a weeping crabapple tree. But on this particular day the garden was no match for my existential bleakness.
After indulging briefly in self-pity I noticed a large man in dungarees across the street. For some reason he was focusing intently on my house. Judging by the truck parked beside him, he appeared to be associated with a heating and cooling business. But he was standing at a painter’s easel. Struck by the incongruity, I took my cup of coffee across the street and peered over his shoulder at the canvas.
“Are you painting my house?”
He was, indeed. With its colorful paint job and profusion of flowers, he said, the place seemed like the home of an artist. Though I have never identified myself as an artist, I recognized that I was being complimented, and on this one occasion I allowed a compliment to sink in.
The true artist in this case, Scott Sullivan, runs Quality Heating and Cooling in Bloomington, Indiana (www.qcomfort.com). He’s an award-winning plein air painter whose work has been featured in Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture (Quarry Books, 2006), among other publications. The painting, he said, was “just a sketch,” but I was touched that someone had found my garden worthy of note. I made him a cup of coffee, and we talked some more.
“Would you be willing to sell me your sketch?” I asked, knowing that I would almost certainly not be able to afford it. To my surprise, he agreed to give me the painting in exchange for a couple of frames I would make for other paintings he was preparing to show.
A decade later I had sold my house, made another home, and written a book about women who have formed intense relationships with their homes while living without a partner. I asked Scott–by then my regular HVAC professional–whether he would allow me to reproduce his sketch for the introduction of my book, since it was now the only publishable image of the house I could obtain. He kindly agreed.
Perverse though it may sound, I created my garden as a substitute for the partner I didn’t have. A relationship ended, and I fled to the nursery. Perhaps you seek solace in clothes shopping, or chocolate. I found it in plants.
The garden was rich compensation for my perceived lack, but it wasn’t the only thing that kept me sane. There was also that wonderful old house–a simple bungalow built in 1925, of which I was just the second owner.* And of course there were the dogs and cats.
For the rest of the story, you’ll have to read the book. In the meantime, I offer the following gallery of snapshots by way of illustrating the book’s introduction.