by Mimi Hedl
For better than twenty-five years, I wrote to a woman in Idaho, Billee, who contacted me through the Seed Saver’s Exchange, wanting seed of catnip. Before I sent her the seed, I wanted to verify that she wanted the nip and not the mint. Many folks wrote to me wanting catmint but said catnip, an easy enough mistake.
She promptly wrote back, that no, she wanted catnip for her cat. She wanted to see what happened when her cat smelled the herb and would have an aphrodisiacal experience after the fact. She didn’t use that word, aphrodisiacal, but something simpler and to the point. She wrote like a woman of the hills, always addressing me with Hello, and finishing the letter with, Billee. It didn’t take me long to realize she had the demeanor of a scholar, and her scholarly ways came through, in each and every letter.
Billee loved roses, the old roses, and went to great lengths to find many old, old roses. She sent me a cutting from her Quatre Saisons, an old Damask rose, in fact ancient, the oldest repeat-flowering European rose. It grows proudly in the second quarter-acre garden, producing hundreds of blooms in the spring and then dozens throughout the season. I think of her as Billee in my garden.
We exchanged hundreds of letters, books, printed information, poems, names of books, authors, birthday cards and much more over the years. If I had a question on anything, she would search her stacks of information for sheets she could reprint and then send to me.
Her husband worked in the coal mines. They had little money. When I sent her a check to buy flowers or a book, she would invariably send it back, saying she could not reciprocate and so could not accept my gift. Instead I sent her plants from the garden, blood root and valerian two she especially loved.
She called me once on the telephone, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She could tell from my letters how worried I felt about my daughter, a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps, flying a CH-46E, picking up wounded Marines and transporting troops. It certainly represented a difficult time in my life and Billee’s concern for my mental state touched me.
For the last few years gardening had become all but impossible. She went out to her beds with her walker, but she tired easily and couldn’t do much. Her letters came less and less frequently. This year she didn’t send me a birthday card. I sent her and her husband a Christmas card. When none came from her, I knew her glaucoma had probably left her blind. I wrote letters every few months with talk of the gardens and my life.
This year I wrote her birthday letter from Georgia. It came back to me a week ago. On the back of the envelope, Sr., her husband, had written DECEASED. At first I felt sad no one had let me know about her passing. Then I thought of hill people, of people who don’t have the pretenses us educated ones do, and realized Sr. did the best he could.
Billee told me she left my letters sitting on the kitchen table because Sr. liked to read them. He never said anything about them, or rarely, but she watched him reading them and could tell he enjoyed them. That in itself made me happy. We never know how or if we reach anyone.
So this entry in “Lore of the Garden” becomes my way to pay tribute to this remarkable woman who knew about Florence Bellis, Gertrude Jekyll, read all William Robinson’s books, Beverly Nichols’ books, wrote to botanists, historians, museum curators the world over, researching plants, their lore, their propagation and so enjoyed the beauty of it all. Her kindness and her simple ways touched me. She lives on in my garden just like my mother, father, Ron and so many others, a living mausoleum.
I had to include this photograph. As I walked out the back door from the summer kitchen, I saw a shape in the flowering currant that stopped me in my tracks. I have never seen such a HUGE black snake before, and I’ve seen hundreds. I haven’t had any mice in the house, so maybe this dude has stalked the premises. It measured more than six feet and later in the morning curled up in a tight circle, taking a nap. I decided to use this photograph instead of the one where you can see Mr. Black Snake’s head, because this shows the flowering currant better. If only I could include the fragrance.