Thursday, March 5, 2009

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance ...


Knowing this day was coming hasn't softened the blow nor has it prepared me with the right words. It's been my preference to just get through emotional events, then to use words later to reflect back when I've established the necessary distance and objectivity. I'm breaking with tradition today because we've all lost a treasure and I need somewhere to go with the feelings.


Madalene Hill passed away yesterday at the early age of 95. "Early" because she seemed immortal to me and because I don't know what we'll do without her. "Early" because she always had more energy than anyone else in the room. "Early" because I'm not ready to let her go.


My husband says that when I mention Madalene in my writing, I always say her name as though everyone on the planet automatically knows who I'm talking about - like "God" or "Elvis". And I always answer that they do. Anyone who knows much about herbs does, and they're who I'm really talking to now.


Do you remember the exact day you first discovered a passion for something? Something you thought you could make your life's work? I do. It was in a cooking class being taught by Madalene and her daughter, Gwen, in Houston in the early 70's. Although already working in restaurants, I hadn't really decided what to be when I grew up. That night Madalene said something like "Herbs are the thin thread that links you to your ancestors no matter what part of the world they came from." For someone looking for connections, family, and my place in the world, those were powerful words. A lot of firsts in my life occurred in her presence, a lot of lightbulbs went off. And after all of these years, it's just too hard to imagine her gone.


There's one memory I'd like to share. I was the general manager of Hilltop Herb Farm in Cleveland, Texas, working on opening the new one in Houston. If you don't know about the original Farm in Cleveland, it was a true destination location. People would drive the two hours or more from Houston and other cities to this place out in the piney woods of East Texas, down a two lane country road with no streetlights, to the middle of absolute nowhere. A turn onto a dirt drive would land you by an enormous greenhouse where a prix fixe dinner centered around culinary herbs was served on Friday and Saturday evenings.


This particular Friday evening in 1983 seemed like the others. A "little weather" seemed to be blowing in, but the staff was in the kitchen finishing the meal preparation as Madalene greeted arriving guests. One arrived at the main entrance to the greenhouse in a wheelchair, about the time a tornado also made a surprise appearance. With Madalene holding onto the guest with one hand and holding firm to the wooden doorframe with the other, they rode out the tornado right there in the door. The wreckage of the greenhouse was strewn about them, but there they were. You can see why I might think of her as indestructible. To give you an idea of the devastation that night, it took several hours to clear an exit back to the road, and several more before we could even think of leaving. Friends of the Farm returned the next day to do what we could, but it was a crippling blow.


Years ago I lost another friend too early - Warren Skaaren. When he died, I eventually realized that all we can do to get through the loss and to honor them is try to cultivate in our selves more of the traits we loved in them. With Warren, it was humility and a generosity of spirit. With Madalene, I don't know where to start.


This post started with Ophelia's line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There rosemary, that's for remembrance..." It continues "pray, love, remember..."
I know we will.

(Latest update is that there will be a memorial service for Madalene on March 22nd, at 2 p.m. in the beautiful Concert Hall on the grounds of the Festival Institute in Round Top.)

12 comments:

Pam/Digging said...

This is a beautifully written tribute to her memory. Thank you for sharing a few stories about your mentor. It sounds like she's leaving some big shoes to fill.

vbdb said...

Thank you, Pam. She was truly amazing. Kathy Huber of the Houston Chronicle has much more information in her 3/5/09 article:

www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/gardening/6295948.html

Pamela Villars said...

A very moving eulogy - I feel as if I met her, albeit briefly. My condolences.

Cindy, My Corner of Katy said...

Vickie, I had no idea you were involved with Hilltop and knew Madalene personally. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I was never able to visit Hilltop; my grandmother considered it heaven on earth. So when Madalene and Gwen came to Round Top, I was delighted. I had the great good fortune to take one of Madalene's herb classes at Round Top about 10 years ago. I went back a few months later and helped her crew plant daffodil and ipheion bulbs in the woods near the gardens. I was thrilled and delighted to have the chance to help continue her vision for the gardens. Madalene was a true Texas treasure and a national icon for herbalists. She will be mourned and missed.

vbdb said...

Cindy, I went out to the garden today and was surprised to see the "clusiana" tulips have bloomed. Then I read your post about the white tulips in your friend Amy's garden and was struck by how much comfort we both found in a garden. It's nice to feel that connection with you. Can't wait for Chicago.

Pamela, it's really wonderful to be at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and meaningful friendship. Funny, I've never asked if you garden!

bill / prairie point said...

Vicki, I didn't know you were involved with Hilltop Herb Farm. I was one of the ones who used to drive up to Cleveland from Houston. At the time I was living in an apartment and did not have a garden of my own so I wasn't into herb growing, but I appreciated the food.
Oh and I knew Warren too (slightly, from college). Small world.

vbdb said...

Bill, it really is a small world. She certainly was a force of nature and touched a lot of lives. I have some great stories about Warren, too, the next time we see each other.

Bonnie said...

Beautiful thoughts, Vicki!

vbdb said...

Madalene was unique and left an incredible legacy. If I've succeeded in conveying even a tiny piece of who she was, I'm happy. Thanks for leaving your note.

Linda/Central Texas Gardener said...

Thank you for sharing these stories! I always felt so honored to know Madalene--now I feel like I continue to know her through you all. Linda

Barb Mann said...

Even here in New Mexico a lot of us, mostly herb growers, knew about Madelene, and Gwen, and Hilltop, and though I've never known them, it seems that there will be a void in the herb world since Madelene's passing.
So glad I've found your blog!
Barb

vbdb said...

Barb - so happy you dropped by to share thoughts of Madalene.