Photo by Peggy Sturdivant 
Garden Lady made by Carrie Gustafson.

At Large in Ballard: A Garden Lady

By Peggy Sturdivant

The other day I did something strange. I sat in my backyard. I sat in my garden.

While weeding I’d been mulling what it would be like to write a column on one subject every week, such as the garden, or birds. I went from thinking it would be easier than trying to write about Ballard as whole, no interviews with tomatoes, to realizing it would be harder because I have no idea what I’m doing in the garden. I could barely answer a garden question to save my life.

I read the garden column in The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, once it makes its slow, broad-sided way across the country to my mailbox. That writer often veers into politics, interspersed with people she met at the post office, spectacular bushes in bloom and reflection on recent deaths in the community.

I knew I had been trying to avoid writing a column on a certain subject; weeding seemed preferable.

Though flagging in the heat I decided I could reach the lower bed by stepping down from a rock wall instead of walking around. The lower foot kept going downhill into a split that was going to crack something. I did an embarrassing roll that stopped above the four-foot drop onto concrete. I was bruised but damage to the French asters was minimal.

That’s when I had the sense to sit down in the backyard with a glass of wine. I knew I had been trying to avoid both writing and thinking. Foolishness put me on my seat, so chastened that I sat and watched a snail for at least ten minutes. I let him/her slime their way up my finger. It’s amazing the way they can shrink into their shell or alternately extend front and back, out and up with their antennae.

I could smell the sweet peas mingling with the jasmine I bought on the distressed shelf at Fred Meyer. I admired the deep blue of the hydrangea. By what accident did they become that deep blue this season? On the warm concrete I looked at my garden lady, a ceramic plaque, handmade and hand-painted.

Carrie Gustafson made the garden lady and gave it to me last year. Carrie said the lady could be outside in summer but should be inside for the winter. I tried her different places until she found her perfect inside place on a wall in the kitchen.

I meant to tell Carrie how much I loved having the garden lady with me before I heard in March that she was sick. In April Carrie donated work for the Sunset Hill Community Association auction; cups and bowls in glazed porcelain; I hated to turn them over to the auction committee. With the donation she included fliers for this summer’s Lily and the People Clay Camps for children. In May I learned that she had end-stage lung cancer. There was no middle. She died in Ballard on June 7, 2014.

Carrie Gustafson was Ballard and Sunset Hill to the bone. She was raised here, raised a family here and seeded 100’s of children into the love of art through her twenty years of clay camps. She went to Webster School and Ballard High. The solstice parties that she and Regnor Reinholdtsen held on 32nd NW created community that endures.

After her diagnosis Carrie’s joy in the life she’d lived was so great that she was ready to make peace with dying. What broke her heart was the realization that she would no longer be teaching this summer.

My daughter Emily was just one of Carrie’s students, beginning at a Lily and the People Clay Camp, and then never ending. “Carrie has probably said ‘I love you’ to you more times than I ever have,” I admitted to Emily when I told her about Carrie’s illness.

“That’s true,” my daughter said. Carrie wasn’t shy about emotions. She always believed that everything would work out and as far as I know, even close to death, she was never afraid. She certainly wasn’t afraid to say, “I love you.”

I have spent a lot of time in the garden since her death, allowing myself time for quiet mourning. No Facebook chatter. No notice in the paper until Sunday, July 6, 2014. Just some beautiful messages from the family, an announcement last week of a date for the Celebration of Life on July 27, 2014 and the ultimate gift, a letter from Carrie herself, left for me to read after her death.

Carrie had a garden no matter where she lived; always had plants behind her pottery studio on 32nd NW. I didn’t have a chance to tell her that the garden lady spent spring in the kitchen, along with so many of her creations that I use every day. I see her teachings, in both art and life, in my daughter’s ceramics. When Carrie first introduced her to the wheel she put her hands over those of my daughter’s so that she could feel how the clay would rise up.

Carrie said I always had her back. I know she had mine. I see her everywhere, my garden, my kitchen, and especially in my daughter’s hands.

A Celebration of Life will take place at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, 2014 at Sunset Hill Community Association. There will be a community potluck, music and ceremonial Raku firing, into the evening hours. As always, everyone is invited. Her daughter Holly Gold has been rolling out the clay. Information at www.lilyandthepeople.com

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