Personal: Gardening with Spirits

Kathleen Corcoran Memorial Garden

When you marry a widower, you’re always aware that if his late wife had not passed, you would not be married.  And if you are even slightly insecure, the specter of the sainted late wife can be a challenge.  When I fell in love with my husband, Jim, one of the things that attracted me to him was his reverence for his late wife.  He wasn’t maudlin about it.  He felt profoundly blessed by having her in his life and always imagined they would be together forever.   And they are; only she is a spirit now and he is a living man capable of loving and in need of the companionship of more than spirits.

Kathleen O’Conell Corcoran was a well respected Family Mediator in Eugene, Oregon, who strived to protect children during the divorce process.  She help so many people that when she succumbed to cancer at age 50, the community built a memorial garden for her in Skinner Butte Park along the Willamette River, next to Lamb Cottage where she and Jim were married.

Jim met me 11 years later at a Jazz storytelling event at the library.  It‘s odd that we found each other and connected so deeply.  He is a firm believer in the monogamous predestined soul-mate kind of love.  I came from a shattered family, my parents marrying and divorcing so many times I lost all count.  I was pretty hard-headed in my first marriage in my belief that relationships don’t last forever, although, as it turned out, my first marriage was a long,  mostly happy one that lasted 20 years and gave us both a lot, including two wonderful children who are my pride and joy.

But I had a restless spirit and had to strike out on my own once the kids had grown.  It was a rough time and I learned a lot about myself.   The Indigo Girls have a lyric that says, “The hardest to learn is the least complicated.”  I began to see monogamous, long term relationships for their elegant simplicity and promise of security.

That of which we make mountains

Jim and I began to talk about these things within hours of meeting – along with love of jazz, poetry, philosophy and art.  We talked about my disabilities.  In the first month of knowing him I took him shopping with me for my “embarrassing” supplies.  He didn’t wait in the car or flinch when we went down the aisles no one treads easily.

After that, I was in this kind of dotty state of love-at-first-sight.  Still, there was the fear that I wouldn’t live up to the late wife.  I was the compromise relationship.

After we moved in together and I was living amongst their furniture and our table was set with her beautiful hand woven placemats, I would have these unexpected bouts of jealousy, as if this presence was nudging me out of the picture.  But as time went by, I realized that he was dealing with insecurities of his own.  I have a living ex, I am still friends with old lovers.  He has a relationship now with my adult kids who love their father, and we all have a bond that he can’t really ever penetrate.

We navigated through these insecurities with a tenderness and understanding that age has blessed us with.  We’ve witnessed unexpected tragedies, experienced unimagined changes and found ourselves both alive and unwilling to sink into bitterness.  We’ve developed a sense of wonder and delight, a willingness to let the past interact with the present and not let fear limit our lives.  In return, at several crucial times we’ve both felt Kathleen’s loving spirit in our lives.

This recently culminated, as all idyllic adventures should, in a garden.  We have been married 6 months now and he felt it was time for me to make a contribution to Kathleen’s memorial garden.  I had visited before, enjoyed it and taken pictures, but I felt that was a private place for him to commune with her and his past.

The Kathleen Rose

He convinced me that it was a good place for us both to commune with the past and the passing of all life.  We hear we are ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but when you get your hand in soil that becomes a more fertile metaphor.  Soil is made of the bits of all life that has gone on before and is where all life begins it bloom.  All our ancestors and all the forests and cities and lakes and rivers and oceans are in the clumps of dirt in which we grow our sustenance.  It’s good basic magic.

Still, it was hard not to feel like an interloper.  We went to the Portland Nursery and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pick out something.  Both he and his late wife were expert gardeners.  Both loved Mission style furniture and architecture.  I was a city girl from the poorest part of Memphis.  I had a brief burst of gardening fever in early life, but my various aches had kept me from it for over 20 years.  I had no discernment or arrangement skills.  If it was pretty, I tried to grow it.

What would I choose for this very special memorial garden?  I didn’t commit to actually doing it, only committed to try.  It was a rare 90 degree day and when we walked in a datura was in bloom.  My neighbor in Memphis, Miss Lillian, an expert gardener, grew them in her front yard.  The glorious trumpet shaped blooms perfumed the evening air.  I used to marvel at its shape shifting nature – the flowers were pale green, then parchment colored, then creamy white, then as they faded blushed with pink and turned into parchment again.  They’re like a moon flower that’s gone to drama school.

I had to touch it and bury my nose in the cool bloom.  Jim loved it.  “It’s flamboyant, like you.”  It met all the requirements – heat and drought tolerant, a late summer bloom, a textured leaf.  The flower chose itself.


Jim chose a blanket flower, with a red and yellow bloom that looks like petals on a daisy but when you get closer, you see that it’s composed of tiny individual flowers.  Jim’s a little flamboyant, too.

blanket flower

The next morning we drove to Eugene for the planting.  My knee and back were inflamed, so I sat, wrote and took pictures while he did the weeding and pruning.  Skinner Butte Park is gorgeous and well used.  In a section by where we parked, a group of citizens-of-the-street congregated.  Close to us a group was putting their dogs through show training.  A couple was having their wedding photos taken.  Bicyclists, walkers and runners were enjoying the path along the Willamette.

As he was working, we heard a strange bird call.  In the trees by the Willamette, two eagles were calling to each other.  We found out later they had a nest close by and had been the highlight of summer visits to the park.

Since we are both sensitive to symbolism, we saw it as a visitation and blessing from Kathleen, whose spirit has been a grand and inspiring presence in our lives.  Later, when we finished the planting, a lone humming bird buzzed around the garden and sipped from several of the flowers – the wild geranium and the Kathleen rose.

I held my breath, hoping it would sip from the datura, but it didn’t take to either of the new flowers.  Instead it hovered right above the garden and looked at us both for what seemed like a long minute and then flew away, disappeared into the vast blue sky.

These images we share, these memories and the time we take to honor the past make us more than a couple but a family.  The more we tell stories to each other about those who have helped form us, the more we grow together.  If someday we are spirits and are flying together around the rivers and gardens of our mortal life, I hope we influence some gardener to look forward and backward with the same vision of delight that we shared in this small memorial garden.

The Tended Garden
Jim and Joy