My Papa and I blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday. My own kids just turned six!
Read about it here.
On my first read of The Secret Garden, the first few pages made me burst into tears and tell my parents it was horrible.
Spoiler alert – I made it through the part where young Mary Lennox wakes up in India to find everyone she knows dead or gone.
My original misgivings aside, I fell in love with this classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and read it several more times throughout childhood. The book was given to me my Gigi (my grandmother), who bought it in England. In subsequent years, we traveled there together.
My Gigi’s inscription in the book.
The story, first published in 1911, and the trip were a strong influence on my future as I later ended up living in England.
My mom and I recently saw the play of The Secret Garden at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
“I wish Gigi was here with us,” I said, referring to my grandmother. “But she would be 106 and senile.”
We laughed. We weren’t being cruel; sometimes laughter is all you can do about the hard things in life.
I had many years with Gigi; she passed away when I was 32. She was around 91 and had dementia for 10 years. Her later years, when our roles were reversed, allowed me to make amends for my bratty teenage self.
Mary finding the door of the garden. Illustration by Charles Robinson.
I wasn’t as fortunate with her husband, my Papa, whose memory is tied up in my first reading of The Secret Garden. He was dying of Cancer while I read the book in the hospital waiting room. I was surprised when he actually died. I was eight.
The gorgeous play not only made my mom and I cry and laugh; it caused us to talk about the past.
I know it’s always made my mom sad that her children don’t have as many memories of her dad. But I do have some nice memories tucked into my brain, including the fuzzy, not-so-nice ones of him being sick.
Revisiting the past lead me to a cool revelation. I have always had pieces of my Papa, right here in my mom. She looks like him (but pretty). She has his sunny outlook and social disposition. She has his smarts and work ethic.
And she carries his memories, like when she burst out one recent Christmas morning and said, “My Dad would have loved this.”
This is the beauty of the written word and the glory of books. Stories tie us to our selves, our loves, and help us remember.
About the book and more info
My Papa, Verne McClellan, passed way years before the Internet – 1978 – but as a small-town lawyer and community-leader in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, I thought he might show up on Google. Besides his ancestry listing, I found one mention of him in his friend Bill Goss’ 2009 obit:
“Bill and Verne McClellan arranged for the purchases of the properties of GE Plastics, BWX, and WSI, located west of Mt. Vernon.”
My mom confirms this is true. I thought that was cool.
If you haven’t read The Secret Garden, please indulge. My copy was illustrated by Charles Robinson.
My other favorite book by Burnett is The Little Princess with gorgeous illustrations by Tasha Tudor.
For Cincinnati locals, the play has left the Playhouse but check out their current season.