Friends in the Garden: How an English Gardener Touched my Life
We Wandered Into Our Neighbors' Garden
In the summer of 1981, I was nine years old and my world began and ended on Mildenhall Road, which was more of a country lane than a busy street. My seven-year old sister was my only playmate. My military family was living off-base in a tiny hamlet next to a medieval milling village appropriately named Mildenhall in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. Mildenhall was replete with cobbled streets, a 500-year old market square, a church that seemed just as old, with a grey tower and a knelling bell, and a two-story museum filled with too many artifacts for its space. The river where the ancient mill sat was also the boundary between the tiny hamlet where we lived, which was (and still is) aptly named Barton Mills. It was a tiny little river, as rivers go, and the water barely rippled as it meandered down its course. A public footpath made its way through some fields between my house and the river, which was connected to a green in Mildenhall Village by two bridges that met in the middle of the river on a little wooded islet. I don't even know if the river has a name.
We lived on Mildenhall Road in Barton Mills where the road turned on a 90-degree angle and headed into Mildenhall. In the springtime my sister and I walked to the bus stop in the early-morning fog to the scent of cherry blossoms. In the summer we roamed up and down Mildenhall Road in unfettered, careless wanderings. Blackberry brambles covered the hedgerows and brilliant yellow buntings and finches sang from the brush. On our front lawn a giant fir tree grew thickly into the surrounding shrubs and their bows formed a natural roof. We discovered that we weren't the only ones who knew about the secret room, because we found a large grocery sack full of Playboy magazines in there. I was looking at them disinterestedly when we met the owners of the magazines: three brothers about our age. Richard, Andrew, and Ian. Richard and Ian were nice to us, but Andrew took an immediate dislike and one time he jumped us on the bridge to the footpath. I gave myself a nasty welt on my leg trying to kick him in the groin in self defense.
We were urchins, and 25 years later it seems hard to believe we existed on so much freedom. But memories are marvelous things, they sweeten with age. My mother was an incredible neat freak. We had a playroom full of toys we never played with, because after the play meant cleaning it all up. So we usually headed outside. My memories of my mother at that time include standing on her area rugs every day as she ran the vacuum over them, and seeing her standing at the kitchen window washing dishes. She asked our neighbor if she could paint the kitchen and he provided her with shiny apple-green paint. She hated it. She was a very old 28.
My first encounter with our neighbor, Mr Leo Hassle, was over the tree trunk in our front yard. I remember we were peering at the tree's rings. We had never noticed that trees have rings, until that moment, and this tree had so many of them. We were baffled when Mr. Hassle suddenly appeared and informed us that the tree was over 600 years old, and that you could tell a tree's exact age by counting the rings. Mr. Hassle wasn't pushy and didn't talk down to us. My sister and I took an instant liking to him. I think after that he invited us to go see his three bunnies, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. I don't remember if he had one named Peter, but I do know we were hooked. He kept the rabbits in pens in an ancient garage that smelled sweet with hay and manure. We petted the rabbits and asked him what they eat. Clover, he said.
We asked Mr. Hassle what clover was, and he gave us a startled look. Don't you girls know what clover looks like? No we, didn't. So he took us across the street and showed us where the clover grew, with its dew-covered round leaves and licorice scented white flowers. We offered to pick some for his bunnies, and he heartily agreed. Mrs. Hassle was even nicer than Mr. Hassle. She invited us into their home for biscuits. Since we weren't British, we were a bit overjoyed when she brought us cookies from a tin instead of the bread we were expecting.
Several days later, we saw Mr. and Mrs. Hassle working in their garden from the road. Mrs. Hassle waved at us and asked us if we would like to see their chickens. Have you ever eaten fresh eggs? No we had not. And what's more, our parents were both on Weight Watchers diets and we were tired of eating iceberg lettuce, chicken, and corn every night. They led us to their chicken pen where their brown hens were nesting and laying beautiful brown eggs. The Hassles allowed my sister to go into the pen and pick out three eggs to take home to my mother
Eventually our friendship with the Hassles took us into their English Garden, which they tended almost constantly. The garden was beautiful, and divided into zones. One area held flowers for picking. Another zone contained a pond with water lilies which emptied into a tiny little spring that fed a weeping willow tree. They had a fabulous vegetable garden which grew peas and raspberries, carrots, and green beans.
Soon we were constantly hassling the Hassles. Could we help feed the bunnies? Weed the garden? Feed the Chickens? Pick up eggs? The Hassles were ancient. They must have been at least 60 years old. That is a decrepit age to a 9-year old. We were fascinated by the Hassle's garden, enamoured of its bounty, and intrigued by all of its never-ending surprises. The little pond with its water feature was tiny, with little concrete steps on either side. Poking up from under the lilies were orange fish. They dipped and darted, making the water ripple. One time we found a frog in the pond. The Hassle's garden was an Eden to a 9-year old child shooed out of the house by a clean-freak mother.
In 1981, cell phones were non-existent, the Internet hadn't been invented, and long-distance calls across the Atlantic Ocean were an expensive rarity. My paternal grandparents wrote us about once a month, and my maternal grandmother wasn't speaking with my mother. We were a long way from family. Though I didn't know it at the time, the Hassles were my grandparents in England.
I am thankful for the generous spirit of two retired gardeners who shared their providence with us. Before we moved, they presented us with a picture book depicting full-color photos of kittens with information about caring for them. They were good people, and good neighbors. I don't think they ever spoke to my parents, but when my grandmother came to visit, they invited her over for English Tea. An Indiana farm wife, she appreciatively toured their beautiful garden and had a wonderful visit. She still talks about it to this day. The Hassles instilled a gentleness of spirit that I hadn't encountered at home. I know they are long gone, and the gentle lanes of my childhood have become a smart suburb. But the Hassles and their garden live in my memory and close to my heart.
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