Frances Church: A tiny giant among gardeners

TRECE GREENE photo<br> Frances Church brings an incredible gardener's touch to her plot of land on the north end of the Peninsula, turning her yard into a veritable artist's palate of scrumptious colors.

PENINSULA - All you can see when you drive up is the garden. You're driving along on this road through a little neighborhood on the north end of the Peninsula, you top the crest in the road, and you see nothing but flowers. Just flowers. Flowers upon flowers upon flowers.

Your eye jumps from one to another as your mind tries to put a label on this tiny Eden. Is this a nursery? Is this a park? Is this a public garden? Well, yes and no.

This is Frances Church's flower garden - with a few vegetables hunkering down in the middle - but it is also something of a park for Frances and her husband George and for their friends and neighbors. And it is a public garden for total strangers who are greeted by this canvas of color as they crest the rise in the road. And it most certainly is a nursery. People bring Frances plants to work her magic on. People take plants away with the hope that Frances' touch goes with them. Frances' garden is, indeed, a tiny Eden.

Before I go up to the house, I walk all around the garden trying to name the numerous varieties. I can't. I need Frances. Everybody needs someone like Frances. Her husband George is coming around the corner of the house and offers to get her for me. While I wait, I take picture after picture trying to capture the magic, stepping carefully around the edge of this floral abundance, searching for adjectives. Floriferous! Never before have I had such just cause to use that word - outside of moneyed wonders like Buchart and such.

The person who creates and maintains this floriferous wonder must be a giant among gardeners. I hear her voice as she comes down the driveway, and I wait for her to appear around the apple tree sagging heavily with red fruit. There is another apple tree at the edge of the garden that no longer stands upright. Its top sags almost to the ground. That one, Frances tells me later, is the one the deer can reach and pick clean every year. So, this garden spot is also a restaurant, and here comes the head chef. That's the effect Frances has on you. She makes you mix your metaphors.

Around the upright apple tree comes Frances Church, maybe five foot two, hair as white as one of her prize dahlias, and with a smile bright enough to light up gray days even on the Peninsula. What Frances Church lacks in stature she makes up for with enthusiasm, a zest for living, and a vivid history.

Frances' family moved up the coast from California in 1925.

"I don't remember seeing the ocean in California because I was only three. Well, younger than that," she says as she travels that road again in her memory, "because we stayed nine months in Vancouver. The only thing I remember about that trip was camping, and my father had something in his boot, some sort of bug, and he was shaking it out in the fire. Then my sister had to go to the outhouse in her drop-seat underwear, and my brother and uncle threw snowballs at her. That's all I remember of that trip."

Images of a father shaking a bug into a campfire and a sister being pelted by snowballs on the way to the outhouse anchor Frances'memory of her beginning: traveling up the coast from California headed for the Long Beach Peninsula.

"My grandmother was really sick, and we moved up here. My dad had been hurt - he was an architectural engineer - and he'd been hurt in an accident. In those days, they pulled a bundle of windows up by ropes, and they fell down on him. So, he wasn't able to work. And rheumatism set in - even in California. This was the worst place he could have come."

She laughs as she bends to pull a weed here, a weed there.

"His uncle had a place here, and he had a lot of property. Dad could come down and work on the house and fix it up for free rent. Then he got a crab boat and crabbed for a while, and drowned - let's see, we came out here in 1925 - so he drowned out there" - she waves her hand toward the bay -"in '32 or '31. Mother was pregnant with the last child. Eight children. During the Depression." Her tone of voice underlines the hardship her

mother faced after her father died, but her next words are upbeat and determined, reflecting a legacy of grit and stick-to-it-ive-ness.

"But we survived. It was a small community, and my mother took in washing. We had electricity, and most people didn't. Lots and lots of summer homes. People would come down and stay the whole summer with the kids, and the dads would come on weekends. Mother would do the laundry for them because they didn't have electricity for the washing machines. My mother didn't even have a dryer. We just had clothes lines up - five of 'em - and we all had to hang up clothes from the time we were little. It was - I don't know - it was fun. We couldn't go swimming in the ocean, but after five o'clock, we could walk over to the bay - if the tide was right - walk the railroad track - and go swimming in the bay. Then they took that railroad out about that time, and they had a lot of railroad ties. My older brothers, they were seniors in high school, and they would go up with dad's old Model A - this was after dad died - and they would dig up the ties and bring 'em back to the yard. We had a big area up there - almost a block - and we had a big bonfire.

"We'd play hide-and-seek and run-sheep-run, and all kinds of stuff. Kids from all over the town would come. Almost every night we'd have a bonfire, and that kept us kids at home, I guess. My mother would work in the laundry, and my aunt and uncle would come in the summer time with their two boys, and my uncle and [one of the boys] would go pogy fishing."

I don't know what a pogy fish is, and Frances, who was raised on pogies, has to educate me.

"They're a fish out here in the ocean," she explains patiently, "that get quite big and you fillet 'em out. They're quite good. I remember when they fixed up boxes with a harness, they'd put their line in there in a circle - piled up high, you know - then they had these weights on 'em and they'd even make their own weights. Then they'd whirl around their heads and let loose way out into the ocean. Couldn't afford a pole. Couldn't afford a reel. I remember people thought that was really great when they came up with that idea. Fitzpatrick was the photographer, and he took pictures of them with their catch of the day, a big long string of fish - you know, somebody in the middle and somebody on either end - and he put 'em on postcards and sold 'em to the tourists."

I ask if she still has one of those postcards.

"No, I don't," she says emphatically and wistfully, "and I wish I did. I did have one of those pictures. I had a whole picture album filled with pictures, but it got lost when we were in Alaska."

With one aside, Frances catapults us from the 1920s - with children playing around bonfires and innovative fishermen casting for pogies - to Alaska. How did they get there from here? Frances isn't ready to go there yet. She stands among her flowers remembering.

"This was a good place to live," she says thoughtfully. "It really was - and this is why I believe in God. From the time I was little my mother told me how she was converted at a camp meeting in California. When she was going to move up here, she prayed there would be Adventists, Seventh Day Adventists. When we got up here, right across the street was this Adventist lady. The only one in town," she adds smiling. "Well, maybe I shouldn't say that. Mrs. Yeager used to bring all her kids down to Mrs. Sprague - and we'd have Sabbath School - you know, like Sunday school, only on Saturday. She had a piano, and we'd have Sabbath there. Then when we got a place of our own - we only moved about two and a half blocks - we'd have Bible studies at mother's place. That took the place of church. We did that until they built the church in 1940. Now we've built a new one. But the very fact that my mother's prayer was answered so definitely ... There were two or three [Adventist] families in Long Beach, but to come to Ocean Park and find one right across the street. God did that."

I compliment her garden, and she demurs.

"My garden isn't as good this year because it was late, and George was sick this year. I used to get up at six and get out here and get weeding, but I'm getting older. This year made a big difference. I used to say I was going to live to eighty. That's a year longer than my mother lived. She lived to just barely her seventy-ninth birthday. Well, I guess I programmed myself because when I got to 80 all of a sudden I just felt so old and tired. I couldn't get up and down, but I still made myself get out here."

The proof is in the pudding, as they say or - in Frances' case - the flowers. We stroll through and around and in and out among her flowers as Frances describes each variety, as if talking about children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

"My dahlias were the first things. The slugs had been eating them, and you couldn't tell I had any dahlias at all until I weeded them and put out slug bait."

As I follow her among her floral abundance, she describes their battle with water, problems in the pump house with the filter and all, and getting along without water to the garden. She obviously won that battle because the dahlias and every other flower are blooming profusely with not a hint of having been deprived of anything. Frances has the touch - accompanied by a lot of hard work. Frances delineates the area devoted to vegetables, which are sparse this year, maybe five peas up and one bean out of a twenty-foot row. She had a row planned in the center of the garden for parsnips, but couldn't find any parsnip seeds. She filled in with carrots, most of which five neighbor pups played to death with the help of four cats.

She tries to speak more kindly of cats now, however, since she's taken in the cat of a niece who's moving to North Carolina to live with her son.

"I've been up nights with that cat," she says, laughing, "just like a baby. Really. Howling, not wanting to settle down."

We stand looking out over the expanse of what looks like a lot of weeding for one person, and I say as much. Frances agrees in a philosophical tone that belies the effort that has gone into this garden.

"Yes, that's where the work is - and all the tilling. I tilled last year. George taught me how to till, and I did quite an area in here. It was really quite simple." Pause.

"Except when I stalled it and George went to town and I had to wait until he came back. I was over down there where it's soddy - lots of sod."

She defines a large section with a sweep of her hand. At almost 80 - 79, in fact, the age her mother died - Frances learned a new skill, which is daunting to most people years younger. She learned to wrestle a Rototiller through a spring garden soaked by a Peninsula winter, just daring her to make something out of it. She had already learned the hard way about not planting too soon on the Peninsula.

"Never before Memorial Day weekend," Fred over at the cannery told her. She scoffed and planted earlier anyway.

"I remember it was my sister's birthday, April the 25th. I was weeding the corn and it was up just sitting there, not growing, kinda yellow. It hailed, and I had to get ready for work. I went over to the cannery, and that's when he told me: Never before Memorial Day. I just laughed at him. Then he planted on Memorial weekend and in five weeks had a garden taller than mine."

She laughs, shaking her head at her own stubbornness and the almost infallible wisdom of people who live here long enough to understand what it takes to survive.

Frances' garden is a maze known only to her, although her daughter has helped some - and George, of course. Frances has planted vegetables among her flowers like cairns along a roadside, landmarks leading one through the flowers, monuments to perseverance and healthy pride.

Flowers for cutting purposes - annuals - go here. A patch of corn for eating goes there.

The main path, clearly delineated in her mind's eye, is just another part of the mystery to the uninitiated. Peas and carrots and beets over there - the wave of the hand again - and beans down by those delphiniums. I expect to turn around and see her wearing one of those flat-topped straw hats and a striped jacket proclaiming the name of the tour she's directing or the main attraction she's waving us into. This garden catches one up in the early August humming of invisible insects and the tangible aromas emanating from - colors! - purples and blues and oranges and pinks and whites and yellows.

The effect of it all does something to one's expectations, and Frances as a barker along a carnival midway is not too much of a stretch. I ask if she knows how many different flowers she has here, and she answers with an immediate, "No." The question, however, makes her ponder the possibilities. "Different flowers? No." We try to list them and check them off on our fingers: dahlias, pompom dahlias, black eyed Susans, poppies, Shasta daisies, tiger lilies, delphinium, roses - almost gone now - gladiolas, coreopsis, Echinacea, calendula, mallow, baby's breath, nasturtiums, fall asters, and an exotic, milky white variation of a tiger lily with red spots like measles on big dabs of yellow in the white throats of single blossoms.

She stops beside a purple something. "Then there's these things, and I don't know what they are." Her words startle me like an unexpected clap of thunder. I expect her to know. It's as if Monet admitted he couldn't identify a water lily. We speculate together and unsuccessfully about the name of this purple mystery. I take a picture and plan to carry it with me to show to people I encounter - standing in groups talking about the world situation and such - and to ask, "Do you recognize this flower? Do you know its name?" I will probably wake up in the middle of the night and look through flower books trying to identify this anonymous flower from Frances' garden. I want to take that name back to her as a gift. I am still searching.

We stop by the tiger lilies marching along the edge nearest the house, a border of rampant orange with black spots. She has started this whole parade of tiger lilies with one bulb, and she now counts 47 to date.

"Last year," she says wistfully, "they were over my head, but they had water then."

Frances has a potpourri bed, so called because it has a little of everything in it, including - she hesitates,

"I hate to say this, but people steal things. They came in and stole a great big Naked Lady, you know, the lily. It sends up its leaves, then dies down, then sends up a single stalk with ten or fourteen lilies on the stalk. Someone stole my coreopsis.

"Then there's a spot in my dahlia bed where they came in and took about five. The year before, I thought things were kind of safe out there. I planted nasturtiums thinking if kids wanted to pick something those would be good. They never touched them. But I've had people come in and pick my beans and dig my potatoes, and then deer come and eat my apples and the buds off my gladiolas."

But she buys some tape which, when strung taut to catch the wind, will create a hum that keeps the deer away from the gladiolas as the deer make their way to pick clean

the low sagging apple tree.

"We used to have this property, the whole block, and we had a ninety foot row of garden down there where that house is. Ninety foot row of peas, several rows of corn, several rows of carrots."

We move on around to more cutting flowers, the annuals - some cosmos and bachelors buttons. She notes that the annuals are not as many this year for lack of water, and she guesses she won't have as many cutting flowers this year as she'd like. Then she admits she never does think she has enough flowers, and she laughs. What does Frances do with all these cut flowers? She fixes two or three for the church each week. She puts the cut flowers in vases, puts the vases in boxes, and puts towels around them so they travel good in George's pickup with a canopy.

When they finish with them each week at church, the flowers are given to anybody who has a birthday, anybody who's sick. If nobody qualifies, Frances take them to a rest home or to her sister.

"She's done a lot for me over the years, so I give her flowers."

Frances is strongly connected to family, from her own parents and siblings to her children and grandchildren. Neighbors have become like extended family, there to offer help when it's needed. Her twin grandsons lived with her and George for a while.

"They turned out okay," she says, smiling as she recalls the shenanigans of most teen-age boys.

When teen-age appetites stretched their budget, Frances went to work taking care of the elderly to bring in a little more income. One of the twins married in Alaska, where it is possible to simply file with the state of Alaska to be licensed to perform marriages. When Trevor and his girl friend from Long Beach decided to get married, they called and asked George to come up there and marry them. In order to marry the couple where they wanted to be married, George had to be an elder in good standing in any church. As head elder in their church here on the Peninsula, George qualified.

"So, that worked out real good," Frances adds.

The other twin, Travis, went up to Alaska to log with his dad Mike, Frances and George's son. Frances stands in the middle of her garden looking north as she unravels this story.

"Travis loved the woods and the work, and he was good at it. As soon as he could fall forty-two trees in one day without breaking any of them, he could earn top dollar.

The boss flew out from Juno to this island looking for Travis, and he said, 'I came up to see if this Boy Wonder is as good as they say he is.' Travis was falling a tree, a great big thing that was really giving him trouble. He got it down, but he broke the last five feet of the tree. The guy looked at it and said, 'We don't want that much of the tree saved anyway.'" She laughs. "From day one he got a grown man's full pay, and he loved it. He worked in the woods until he was almost twenty-one and somebody killed Mike."

An unexpected clap of thunder again. Frances has woven her story of the twin grandsons right out of their tenure with her and George, through marriage and successful jobs, to a gut wrenching finale. Having arrived at that juncture, she doesn't falter, but plows right on through the painful details with as much determination as if she were "Rototilling" that tough old sod in the garden and by God had to get through it before she got caught by dark.

"We had been up there," she says taking a deep breath. Mike and Travis paid our way, and Trevor and Stephanie furnished a bedroom, and we went up for Christmas that year. 1990 I think. It's hard for me to remember. Could have been '91. But anyway we went up and spent Christmas with them. We rode the ferry to Ketchikan New Year's Eve, and the next day we kissed Mike goodbye and went to the airport and flew out. He flew out to his camp. This was the first of January, and the 19th of February he was shot."

More thunder. She does not pause. She has to get to the end of the story. She describes how the men came to work and how Mike cooked dinner for everybody.

"They were housed," she says, in something like the old auto court we used to own here. Mike had Travis' pickup truck, and he was taking the men to their lodgings with their gear. One man had brought his live-in girl friend. Mike dropped them off at the place they were to live and was helping them carry in their stuff, when Mike heard the woman screaming. He went in the house, and the man was choking the woman. Not a big man, but muscular, Mike made the guy quit. Then the guy went into the bedroom and got a gun, and Mike said, 'I don't need this kinda crap,' and he left. "That's what he used to say when the boys would give him a bad time, 'I don't need this kind of crap,' and he'd go into town. I can hear him yet."

She pauses, looking at the sky, as if contemplating a different ending this telling. Then she takes another deep breath and tells what she knows to be true.

"He could have been safe, but they were on a cul-de-sac. He had to go down and turn around, and when he came back he was shot. He was shot twice, and the sheriff said either shot would have killed him."

We stand there in the garden, where Frances has busted tough sod and created tough beauty, and she finishes her story. Then, and only then, she weeps. "You don't expect it," she says simply through the tears.

"The thing that bothers me is that he wanted to come home for our golden wedding anniversary, and I said, no. At the end of the month the camp was going to shut down for two weeks and he was coming home to help George get the winter wood in for next year. I said, 'It isn't that important.'"

She has relived that story a thousand times, "what ifs" popping up like pesky weeds to be rooted out so something else can breathe. I tell her I have twin cousins who live in Fairbanks. She wipes her nose with a handkerchief she's pulled out of her pocket and begins a story about a nephew who went to school in Fairbanks.

"He used to plant his corn in milk cartons, and it would be knee high by Memorial weekend - or the fifteenth of June. I don't remember which - and he would still get corn."

We agree that the 24-hour days help it along.

"Just imagine though. Wouldn't that be neat?"

Her love of gardening has brought us back full circle. She tucks the handkerchief back in her pocket and starts off on another Alaska story.

When I leave Frances that afternoon, I am carrying two of the dishcloths she knits in the winter, when she's not weeding her garden or rearranging her pallet of flowers. She knits dishcloths to sell at fairs and festivals, and she knits sweaters for needy children. This fall, she'll put her garden to bed for the winter, and next spring she'll be

out there pulling those pesky weeds again and trying to decide what flowers are going where.

"This winter," she tells me as I'm leaving, "I was so sick. But I get out here in the garden and it goes away. The good Lord does that. It's therapy. It really is. The garden doesn't look as good as it should, but I really enjoy it."

So do we, Frances. So do we.

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