Before I Knew her Name

Silvia’s house sits halfway up the last rise before approaching the silos of an abstract red-on-white, mid-century cheese factory that stands on the edge of town and draws thousands of tourists to Silvia’s, small, Vermont village every summer. Her little blue house, quietly tucked into the surrounding trees, might easily be overlooked, but not the gardens or the woman who grew them.

Defying the monotonous monochrome of long winters her garden would suddenly bloom every spring a breathtaking blue. Naturalized scilia and other woodland ephemerals were followed by the lush, velvety purple of her iris, their sword like leaves offset against the powdery pale tones of her peonies. The little blue house was but a neglected backdrop to the radiant color magically drawn from the soil.

By the time I moved to Silvia’s village, the weeds in her garden were beginning to gain control, but not without a valiant battle. The harshness of age was evident in her house, but the fight for the life in her garden was waged until the very end, and, appropriately, the fight was how I first learned of Silvia. Tiny and stooped with arthritis, no longer able to walk unaided, Silvia would crawl from her front porch, moving among her flowers on her hands and knees to weed them, loving their particular beauty until the very last season of her life.

Another gardening neighbor told me how Silvia determinedly weeded her garden. At the time, my neighbor was photographing village elders and had dropped by to talk with Silvia, hoping to photograph this unstoppable woman. Silvia couldn’t understand why anyone would want her photograph. She certainly would not be photographed in her house, maybe in her garden, and with a slight rebuff she sent the neighbor away.

Why I didn’t march down the street the very instant I learned of Silvia, I’ll never really know. I know I made excuses. I was covered in dirt from my garden. I hadn’t been introduced. What would I do with the children? And I feared the expected rebuke.

Silvia died later that autumn. Yet she returned to me the following spring.

Knowing of my interest in Silvia, another neighbor told me that Silvia’s house was slated for demolition. Nobody seemed able to locate her next of kin, if she even had any kin, and the little blue house was in poor condition. The biggest question I had at the time was what would happen to the plants she loved so much? A woman who crawled to tend her plants should not have them die beneath rubble.

This time, I knew not to hesitate. Shovels in hand, my neighbors and I, with a gaggle of children, paraded down the street, pulling a little red wagon. It was while digging in her garden, and once again covered in dirt, that I learned from her next door neighbors that Silvia, was someone I should have made every effort to meet.

  • Her house was filled with books.
  • She was “Russian”. (She was actually Estonian.)
  • Her chicken coop had been in the back bedroom of her house.
  • She had survived the horrors of a German concentration camp.

And so it began. I walked back home, pulling a wagon load of Silvia’s plants, wholly intrigued with a woman I had never met.

For the past couple of years Silvia’s presence has grown in my life. Her flowers surround me in my gardens, blooming in remembrance. Jam is made from her gooseberries. I  trace her actions, while gently stirring the deep red berries, their aroma savored, as thoughts fill my kitchen. She comes to me in the quiet of the bathtub, head submerged, beneath her life’s possibilities. My children and I pick apples from her trees, crunching into their tartness, on our way to soccer practice.

But this ephemeral presence of Silvia, over time, has not been enough. Much like Silvia herself, these small living items from her life have become tenacious symbols, laden with their own determination, driving me to seek out her story.

As much as Silvia has become a part of my life, I am still learning her story. A few months ago, Silvia was imagined beneath the quiet of the bath water. Now I have a few of her photographs, a letter and a rough outline of her life, with some gaps and many questions, but lives are never outlines.

As the struggles of her life become more evident, there are moments I want to keep her simply as my neighbor who lived down the street with the beautiful gardens. I sometimes want to keep her as she is to me now, not losing the Silvia I currently know, in exchange for the Silvia of my tentative grasping.

But Silvia is stronger than me, and her story demands to be told, if only as a story interwoven with my process of finding her story. I feel as if I hold a shining thread to Silvia, as golden and as delicate as her globe flowers (trollius euripaeus) that bloom in my garden. It is my hope that this story becomes as intricately rounded as those blooms, each petal a layer hoping to unfold.

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