22. April 2015 · Comments Off on The Camellia Collector’s Garden · Categories: Memoir

In an upscale neighborhood halfway between Redwood House, and Granny Jessie and Grandpa Jim’s tiny white house on South Lotus, there was a magical place tucked into a dell of huge native California live oak trees. Looking back, we— my brother JP, my sister Pippy and I— seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time there, in those lovely leisurely days when mothers were expected to stay at home with children, but not to spend every waking minute ferrying them frenetically from scheduled amusements, playdates and lessons, with barely time for a snatched meal from drive-through or take-out.

Compared to our peers in the 1960ies, Mom may have been a bit of an overachiever, with Cotillion on alternate Tuesdays, Girl Scouts on Wednesday, and Confirmation on Thursdays. That was during the school year, though… in the summers, we three had swimming lessons at the house of a woman in La Crescenta who had, like her mother before her— been on the American Olympic swim team in their respective days. Mom sat with half a dozen other mothers on the deck in back of the house, while the two women dragooned a dozen tadpole children through their paces: diving, back-stroking, holding our breath and diving down to the bottom of the nearly Olympic-sized pool, treading water. It must have been rather boring for her, I imagine. Mom must have enjoyed the time during our lessons in nature appreciation at Descanso Gardens more, because she could walk around the acres of Manchester Boddy’s landscaped estate.

He was a newspaper publisher in the 1920ies and 1930ies, an aesthete with a mad passion for camellias, and a lovely chunk of property, close against the hillside and thickly grown with huge native oak trees. His house was still there, back against the first rise of the hillside, a large, graceful white house with the hollow and institutional feel common to a mansion that has once been a great home, but now full of empty, or nearly empty rooms, given over to official enterprise. Owing to a number of business reversals, the estate and garden wound up being in the public domain, but unlike the house, the gardens were burgeoning, enchantingly full of life… and flowers.

As children, we loved the camellia woods, but Mom loved the rose garden, two acres of roses, Grandpa Jim’s tiny formal garden expanded exponentially. Like his garden, it was for roses and roses alone, bare thorny stems rising up out of carefully tended weedless ground, planted in curving beds, and straight disciplined lines, trained over arbors and pergolas, every selected bush lovingly tended and encouraged to bloom, bloom and bloom again, encouraged with every atom of the gardeners’ art and skill with water, and application of clippers and fertilizer. Under the hot spring sun, the scent of acres of roses in bloom was intoxicating… but the rose garden was baked and bleached by sun, shimmering off the gravel paths, and we preferred the cool green shades of the camellia grove and the pond with the ducks. The gardens seem to have been much improved upon, since we were there so often, and even since I took my daughter in the early 1980ies, perhaps the large artificial pond, just inside the old main entrance is no longer there, or in the same form, but the gardens that I remember was threaded with artificial, but skillfully built watercourses, and the main catch-pond was the home of a flock of tame ducks. There was a coin-op dispenser that for a nickel, administered a handful of cracked corn— so very clever of the garden administrators to charge the public for expense of feeding the tame resident waterfowl. By afternoon, the ducks would be lethargic, sleeping off their orgies of gobbling corn from the hands of small children, but in the morning hours, when the garden had just opened, they would throng hopefully towards anyone approaching the main pond, and the ever-bountiful coin-op dispenser.

On the other side of the pond there was an oval lawn, shaded by towering oak trees, and groves of shrub camellias, acres of cool and misty green paths planted with Manchester Boddy’s pride and joy, all dark glossy green leaves and pale pink and white or magenta flowers. We loved the camellia groves, and the tangle of green paths threading the dell: we knew the chaparral hillsides, and the open, sun-blasted acres of rose garden— it was what we lived our lives amongst— but acres of cool green woods, and stone-trimmed water-courses, that was something rare and exotic and special.

Bearing to the left of the duck pond was another bit of exoticism; along about in the late 1960ies, they built a Japanese tea-house, a lovely little tile-roofed pavilion, led to by a series of bridges, walkways and a carefully clipped landscape of bamboo and azaleas. The watercourse was extended into a lagoon around the tea-house foundations, and stocked with fat golden carp. The teahouse served tea, of course, courtesy of a concessionaire who was in the good graces of the Japanese-American organization who had funded construction. The tea was clear greenish-golden liquid, served in handle-less cups and accompanied with fine-grained, soy-salt tasting crackers. We sipped it, looking out into the serene green depths of the camellias and the sheltering oaks, and thought there was nothing more restful, nothing more peaceful in all of the world, than Manchester Boddys’ wonderful gardens.

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