Saratoga Springs

Saratoga Springs’ Yaddo Gardens a place of solace for writer and mother

The writer with her late mom, Beverly, at Yaddo Gardens. (photo provided)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The writer with her late mom, Beverly, at Yaddo Gardens. (photo provided)

Editor’s note: The Yaddo Gardens reopen to the public Monday after being closed for more than two years.

SARATOGA SPRINGS No discussion of my mother’s childhood was complete without a mention of the gardens at Yaddo.

Beverly Curtiss, née White, grew up in a Victorian house at 184 Lake Avenue. She was the second youngest of six children, and despite the onset of the Great Depression, she enjoyed a happy childhood.

All of that changed when my mother was eight years old. Her mother, a diabetic, punctured a finger while she was hanging some drapes. The wound did not heal properly, and my grandmother ended up dying from blood poisoning. Even as her body lay in the parlor, my grandfather, a chiropractor at the Washington Bath House, hadn’t the fortitude to inform his two youngest daughters that their mother was gone. My mother was a smart girl, though, and she overheard her much older sister talking about their mother’s death. After the funeral, my grandfather shipped my mother and her sister, 11 months her junior, to the home of relatives in Connecticut whom they had never met.

When they came home, they learned that their father, against the advice of his sister, planned to marry a woman who hated children. After the nuptials, Charlotte made life in that formerly loving home a living hell. She was emotionally and mentally abusive to the children, whom she forced to call her “mother.” Charlotte was the type of woman who would call my mother a “dirty, filthy pig” if she did not take a bath yet “vain” if she did. There was just no pleasing Charlotte.

Instead of being able to take part in after-school activities like Girl Scouts, Charlotte required that my mother come right home from school to do the housework. Charlotte was the quintessential wicked stepmother. My grandfather, emotionally unavailable to his children, permitted the abuse.

It was the gardens at Yaddo that became my mother’s sanctuary. She used to talk about going there for hours, even in the dead of winter, to escape the abuse at home. She found solace in the grounds of that artists’ retreat. It gave her a place to think. It was beautiful and peaceful. It was a spot where Charlotte couldn’t get to her. It offered my mother a place to forget her misery and grief over her own mother’s death. For nearly a decade, Yaddo played a central role in my mother’s emotional well-being.

My aunt and uncles escaped Charlotte’s abuse as soon as they were able, leaving one by one, my mother’s eldest sister to California and my uncles to fight in World War II. When my mother graduated from high school in 1947, she decided to go to college, being the first in her family to do so. She returned from Plattsburgh State after her freshman year to find that Charlotte, seething with jealousy, refused to let her in the house. Her father finally got Charlotte to relent, and he found my mother a job washing dishes in a kosher hotel. At the end of the summer, he handed my mother a couple of twenty-dollar bills and told her not to come home again.

My mother found a way to finish college with a teacher’s certificate. She taught in New York for a few years and then fled to California as her older sister had years prior. It was there that she remained until 2017, marrying and raising two children.

It was a fluke that I ended up living in Saratoga County. In 1996, my husband, after serving as an officer in the Navy, took a job as an engineer at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. The unexpected benefit for my mother was that she had an excuse to return to the area to visit us and her two granddaughters, as well as to attend her high school and college reunions, something that she said she would not have done had I not lived here.

I began freelancing for the Gazette Newspapers in 1997. In 2011, my editor assigned me a story about the twentieth anniversary of the Yaddo Garden Association (YGA). During my interviews, I mentioned my mother’s story to the president of the association. She suggested that I bring my mother for a tour of the gardens the next time she came for a visit.

The following year, my younger daughter graduated from high school. We insisted that my mother come for the graduation, as it had always been her dream to see all her grandchildren graduate from high school and then college. However, at that point, it was a difficult and uncomfortable decision for her to make. The year prior, my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was extremely difficult to manage at home, resulting in his move to a memory care facility. With a great deal of insistence, we did get her to come out solo.

The YGA president’s invitation wasn’t just lip service. She arranged for a docent to give my mother and me a private tour. I did not tell my mother exactly what was going to happen, just that we were going to visit the gardens. When we arrived, a thoroughly prepared docent came rushing across the lawn calling my mother’s name,

“Mrs. Curtiss?” My mother was taken aback, truly surprised. Then the docent proceeded to give us a detailed, interesting, and delightful tour, a practice that docents hope to continue when the gardens reopen to the public.

Afterward, the gardener volunteers working that morning invited us to join them for their break time. They treated my mother like a VIP, presenting her and me with two tiny bags of potpourri each, one with rose petals and the other with pinecones and pine needles. I still have mine on the bookshelf in my study to remind me of that special day. I can rarely recall it without being moved to tears at the graciousness of this group of volunteers.

My mother was a humble and hardworking woman who never liked anyone to put themselves out for her. I clearly remember watching my mother sitting quietly, nibbling on a piece of blueberry coffee cake, taking in the scene, realizing that this group had, in her mind, gone to so much trouble for her.

So, even after the passage of over six decades, the gardens at Yaddo continued to provide my mother with an escape, some solace during the very difficult time of realizing that her husband of 56 years was slowly slipping away. For a couple of hours, she could once again forget her troubles and simply be taken in and comforted by the beauty of this wondrous place.

Three years ago, I began volunteering in the gardens as a way of feeling close to the mother who no longer knew me because of Alzheimer’s. Every time I am in the garden, I take in the heritage roses at the corner of the rose beds, knowing that those plants were growing when my mother came to Yaddo in the 1940s. I picture my mother allowing their beauty to fill her soul and keep her spirit intact.

On our final gardening day of the season in 2019, the volunteers sent me home with a few of the nearly spent roses we had pruned to prepare the bushes for the winter. I carefully let the petals dry out, and I placed them in a small translucent bag. The next time I visited my mother, I took her the rose petals from her beloved Yaddo.

The following year at the height of the pandemic I was allowed to be with my mother because she was near death. During the visit, I found that little bag of rose petals in her room. I brought them back to New York with me, and when my mother’s ashes were interred with my father’s at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, I sprinkled a few rose petals in her grave. I do believe that her version of heaven must look something like the gardens at Yaddo.

I am grateful to be a part of the Yaddo Garden Association, a group of hardworking, kind and compassionate volunteers who assist in maintaining the beauty and grace of this place that in many ways, saved my mother and now provides its own unique kind of solace for me.

Joanne McFadden is a freelance writer.

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