A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Aunt Dorothy, Danielle Steel & Clare Richards
Monday, October 29, 2007

I find that of all the seasons, fall is the one I spend most thinking about. I think about pruning, I think about moving plants, I think about re-arranging flower beds and I think mostly about the growing season being over and wondering if I will be around to enjoy another one. This has nothing to do with me being that old or having some incurable and deadly disease (I am not in that situation that I know of). It has all to do with the acceptance that all good things must end and that includes one's life. At about this time I think of many from my family who are not around or euphemistically, will not see another spring. I think of my aunt, Dorothy Rowstron. And I think of someone whom Aunt Dorothy should have met. Her name is Clare Richards.

Aunt Dorothy, 88, sat in her Sutherland Drive Toronto brick house, beautiful with her Hayward family ( a sister of my father who had four including Dorothy) wavy silver white hair. In her Queen ’s English mixed with Buenos Aires porteño Spanish she said to me, “Alexander, estoy vieja (I’m old) I am in pain all the time. Che, I don’t want to go on.” I was speechless. This came from the person who consumed every Danielle Steel I would bring for her on my yearly trips to Toronto to see magazine art directors. The high point of those trips was the afternoon "té completo” at Aunt Dorothy’s. She insisted that the lemon cake she served me was out of a box and apologized that her tea wasn’t as strong as I liked it. It was all delicious.

Aunt Dorothy’s comment caught me by surprise. I could say nothing. As I waited at the St Clare station for the subway back to town and my Chelsea Hotel I was depressed even though I was on my way to Columbus, Ohio to attend my first hosta convention.

Surrounded by elderly botanical ladies, at a get acquainted dinner at the Columbus Holiday Inn, I was particularly bothered when the two remaining seats were occupied by an old couple. The man who asked me if the seats were taken said, “You are really going to like Robert and Claire Richards, I went to their 50th wedding anniversary last year.” I groaned inwardly. Robert, in his 89s was dressed in one of those multi coloured seer sucker jackets that traveling Americans seem to favour. Clare, 82, very small, looking at me over her glasses, said, in a wonderful Bostonian accent that brought to mind Kennedy’s “Cubar and the missiles” TV speech, “I’m 82 and 4 ft 11 and still shrinking. I have osteoporosis.” I was charmed. For a week we explored hosta gardens. She told me of her garden in Groveland, Massachusetts, and how she had done all the gardening when Robert had gone to war in 1942. She described the statue of St Fiacre in her garden. I was unaware that he was the patron saint of gardening. Clare even managed to give me some pointers on flower arranging. She was renowned for it in Boston. On the last day of the hosta convention I lifted her into her van and kissed her goodby. “Come to Boston one day, my love, and sit in the gazebo (she pronounced it gazaibo) for tea,” she said to me.

In Toronto on my way to Vancouver (too short a layover to see Aunt Dorothy) I bought a Mountie in scarlet postcard and sent it to Clare. Two months later there was no answer from Clare.

A mile out of Columbus, minutes after I had bid them goodbye, Robert and Clare Richards were involved in a head on collision. Both were hospitalized and Clare was in critical condition. I found out because I finally called her.

“Alex," she said,"Today I walked for the first time. They didn’t give me much of a chance. I was in hospital for two months. But I had to get up and walk. I couldn’t allow Robert to do all the weeding. I had to get back to my flower arranging classes. I want to see my Columbus bought plants come up in spring."

I am now 65 years old and it is almost winter. Mortality is often in my thoughts but I think differently thanks to Clare. When she died some five years later after I last received a letter from her I began to discover good reasons for a continued existence. It has to be one spring at a time. As my perennials die back and the garden is put to bed I live in the expectation for what it will do this coming spring. After that it’s not important.

A few months before Aunt Dorothy died; she was 96, I called her up. “Her first question was, “Alexander, there is a new Danielle Steel out. When are you coming to Toronto?”

When she was dead I received a letter from her son-in-law Ivor who told me, “Alex, Aunt Dorothy was a sophisticated reader and she never had the heart to tell you that she never read Danielle Steel. I think you ought to know that.”


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