A review for Grew

Written for the Lowcountry Weekly in South Carolina by the incomparable Will Balk, a gardener, a writer, an all-around fine human being
There Are Beads Hanging From the Loquat!
It was a thoughtful and interesting invitation I had received from my friend: would I assist in guiding visitors around her garden in downtown Savannah? The annual garden tour had asked my friend, who often writes about plants and gardening, among many other subjects, for her regular columns in the Savannah Morning News.

I was delighted, of course. I knew her garden, a fascinating, quirky, highly personal venture, from many visits; and I had been a regular on garden tours myself, so I had an idea of the sort of expectations garden tourists have for the gardens they visit.

This was some years ago, and my friend’s house and garden were just on the edge of the historic district where most of the gardens on the tour were located. The rather well-heeled garden tourists arrived in their chartered bus at each garden location, disembarked, and walked the ancient brick sidewalks, through charming iron gates, to stroll each garden’s carefully structured paths among beautifully selected and highly maintained boxwood and camellia, azalea and lily, statues and urns.

Until, that is, they crossed a couple of streets to my friend’s cottage and adjoining garden, warm and inviting, intimately close to her neighbors’ cottages. It was a lively, friendly neighborhood of all ages and cultures and backgrounds; it looked and sounded nothing like the stately rows of mansions they had just left.

I was ready when the bus pulled up, and the passengers on the tour descended to the cracked sidewalk. Many seemed to have a very quizzical look on their faces, and their confusion grew when they realized that this was their tour garden. The other docents and I quickly jumped in to introduce ourselves and to break the group into smaller groups to talk about the garden and to answer questions.

The garden was wild and crazy, filled with found objects. There were strings of beads hanging festively from tree branches; giant horsetail was running all out of the flowerbed against the house, through the pathway, over to the other side and on to take over the world. Bottles of all shapes and colors flanked pathways. Part of a bicycle provided a place to hang potted pants. Garlic, lettuce, cabbage, tomato all were growing where there was sunshine, intermixed with bulbs or sunflowers. It was a cacophony of plants and objects of delight, chosen and placed with utter disregard for traditional order or control. There was a glorious sense of joy in the plants and the garden decorations, an unbridled celebration of growing things and learning and changing. This was NOT Loutrel Briggs at work.

It was wonderful to see these surprised garden visitors pause to take a second look at the garden in front of them, to see the ardent playfulness and the constant newness in such a garden. The contrast to the other gardens on the tour was, of course, the point of this garden’s inclusion, and it seemed that revelation struck home with more than a few.

My favorite memory of the day, however, was the woman who muttered as she passed me on the way back to the bus, “This is an insult! I’m demanding my money back!”

My friend, the gardener of this story, is the wonderfully accomplished, delightfully witty and informed writer, Jane Fishman. Jane is a fixture in Savannah, an institution – a role earned as much by her contributions to the wonderful ambience of that city as to her perceptive, informative, and very entertaining columns for the newspaper.

Jane is far more than a gardener, a traveler, and a columnist. Those wonderful columns formed the basis of her first books, Everyone’s Gotta Be Somewhere and The Dirt On Jane. Her third book, The Woman Who Saved An Island: Sandy West and Ossabaw Island, is a much loved celebration of the much loved centenarian of Ossabaw.

A fourth book by Jane Fishman is just out this year – I Grew It My Way: How NOT To Garden; once again, her columns provided the compost. Whether describing her neighbors and community at the new garden where she plants and advises, or explains the particular pleasures of many of the classic garden plants she favors in preference to the current popular ones, Jane takes a reader on a laughing, learning trip through an artful, celebratory garden of delights.

I had thought for a moment that perhaps Jane has taken the old George Herbert maxim ,“living well is the best revenge,” and made it into “gardening is the best revenge.”

That’s wrong, though. Jane won’t spare the energy for something so wasteful as revenge. For her, gardening is living well!

I Grew It My Way: How Not To Garden is a complete delight, quite likely to make you feel giddy about being human, and certain to make you relax just a bit about all those chores in the garden awaiting your attention. It’ll also make you want to remember to look up Jane’s columns in the Savannah Morning News, under “Jane’s World.”

The book is published by Real People Publishing; it can be ordered through lulu.com or amazon.com, but . . . always check first with your local independent bookseller to see if it is something they can order for you. No matter what, get it and read it. And please google “Jane Fishman” and “Jane’s World” to introduce yourself to her wonderful column. Your life will be richer for it.


Cousins: the key to family mysteries

Savannah Morning News

Nov. 27, 2016


In some families – not all – they don’t mean that much when you’re young. They’re just someone close to your own age, someone you’re supposed to like, someone who also calls your grandparents Nana and Papa, in that order. If they live near you and go to a different school, forget about it. If they’re a year or too older (or younger), well, who cares about them? He’s such a baby. She’s only in third grade. Such a huge difference to a kid. If they live in another town, another state, they might as well be strangers.

Except they’re not. They’re your cousins. They’re blood. They know things no one else does. They remember things. And now that the world is so much more connected they can get your number and call you out of the blue.

“Hey, Jane, this is your cousin Bert,” the message began a few days ago. “I got a question for you.”

Bert, as in Aunt Joan’s son? The one we called Rusty because he had red hair? Could it be? It’s only been about five decades. I called him back right away. He got right to the point.

“Remember that black-and-white photograph Uncle Harry and Aunt Trudy took that one Thanksgiving day in Huntington Woods when we were all there, the one that hung in Papa’s den all those years?”

The one I snagged, I thought, and held on to through at least 20 different addresses in five different states? Yep. I remember that one, I said.  I’m looking at it right now. I love it. There you are in a red-plaid vest, to go with your hair, I assume. I remember that vest. You were –what? -12?

Except I totally forgot it was taken on Thanksgiving, which is what made Rusty think about calling me. I guess. Holidays will do that.

Even before he asked I said I’d be happy to make him a print.

“But can I still call you Rusty?” I said.

I know nothing about him now, who he voted for, what movies he prefers, what he likes to do on Sunday afternoons, if he plants garlic or likes to cook collards. I only know we played together. We shared grandparents. We knew where they hid the candy, how they snored at night, how much they loved to watch, “I Love Lucy.” He probably remembers the orthopedic shoes our grandfather wore, how our grandmother was always going to doctors, the contraption she set up to make chopped liver in that sunny back kitchen of their ranch house.

For the first three or four decades of our lives, none of this seemed very important or relevant. Why would it? You take it for granted. When one of your cousins invites you to a birthday party with people you don’t know, you whine, “Mom, do I have to go?” They are not your best friends. Not even the death of a grandparent – which can happen when you are living out of town or when you’re busy with a different life – brings you closer together. Much of the time you tend to be closer to one set of grandparents than another. This has more to do with your parents than with you. The whys of these relationships often go to the grave. Why did our nuclear unit “go with” the Modell side and not the Fishman side? We don’t know. Rusty was a Modell cousin. Every time we get together, we Fishman cousins, we ponder this but we don’t get very far. No one is around who can give us answers.

When I visit a cousin who lives in Minneapolis she tells me, “You’re a Fishman. You have a big head. You’re not very mechanical.”

I do? I’m not?

It’s only when one or both of your parents pass on that cousins start to become more important or more interesting. Or when one of them remembers a certain photograph. Then a certain pride kicks in at the descriptor. “This is my cousin, Nancy,” I say when Nancy and her husband Ronnie visit. Or Marsha. Or Bonnie. Or Maggie, Andy, Carol, Beth and Steve (who used to be Stevie). As a kid I always felt I had so many cousins, but I really didn’t.

When I go to a restaurant with my cousins Melvin and Karla and the maitre ‘d might say, “Fishman party of four,” I do a double take and think there are four of us? Then I remember. I’m not the only one with that name. Melvin is a second cousin. Our fathers were first cousins. That kind of thing used to mean something. Now it doesn’t. Melvin – and my other cousins – know things about my parents and our family I don’t know. Some of it seems silly to me. You wanted my father to be your father? Really? Because my father would play catch with you and your father wouldn’t?

We have so much in common genetically but we all turn out so differently. It’s no accident that we make up our own family as we go along, that we gather our own sisters and brothers, people who are closer to us emotionally.

I’m still hoping a cousin or two will say something that will unlock the mystery that is family. But in the meantime they are my cucina and cucino. And one of them I still call Rusty.