Gardener gone too soon can be applied to many of our Elders who taught us the joy of gardening. Whether it was a parent, a grandparent, a neighbor or friend, the gift of gardening continues to bring us joy. A gift given to me by a gardener I never met was from Lee May.
Lee May is missed in my world of garden writers. This “evolved” man of the garden, Lee May wrote in a way that stirred my soul. I consider him to this day, an absentee mentor. You see, the time to meet him was suggested, but unfortunately, not part of our journey. Lee and is wife were in the middle of moving back to Georgia from Connecticut. I was honored to have the opportunity to speak with him the season before he transitioned to a bigger and better garden. At the time, I had just begun to find my voice to share my garden experiences. As I began to do research about African-American garden writers, his name kept popping up. Conjuring up the nerve to email him and ask to speak to him about garden writing as an African-American was difficult.
Relating to him via his first book, IN MY FATHERS GARDEN, I understood how he needed to curate a unique relationship with his Dad. Lee’s parents divorced and he had a great relationship with his step father. Not really knowing his birth father, a job transfer gave him the opportunity to reach out. Their connection evolved as they spent time with his father in his father’s garden.
Sharing his life experiences and how gardening helped him center himself was a position that many might find themselves in. Gardening tends to capture a middle age audience after life h as presented its many challenges. His walks and talks, as well as the life lessons his father imparted to him, stuck with him as wisdom from the elders.
Lee shared an experience at a well-known garden center here in the Washington, DC area. Lee and Lyn discussed how seldom they encountered another African-American the garden centers. Upon noticing another African-American male shopping for plants, there was this unspoken nod as they chatted a conversation about Japanese maples. A common occurrence when African-Americans embrace the presence of each other, in a setting where we are not commonly found.
In 1992, Lee had the opportunity to become the Editor for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. After taking the job, Lee figured out that editing did not suit his need. As a journalist who had covered politics, been in foreign countries and used to uncovering the story, he began to write about food and gardening. As his job entailed traveling, Lee carried a vase in his suitcase to always have flowers in his presence. Lee had houseplants galore and was honing his skills as an outdoor garden aficionado.
Developing his skill as a garden writer enhanced his relationship with his Dad. Over time spent with his Dad, Lee realized that gardening made him whole. While his father asked him “What are you growing to eat this year?” Lee was not thinking about growing food. Unlike most African-Americans who grew vegetables as a way of making ends meet and feeding their families, this was not Lee’s mindset. This was truly a moment where the defining factors of generational differences as well as economics were brought to light.
Lee May grew to have the beauty of the garden surrounding him. For an African-American to garden for pleasure was simply not the norm. Eventually adding vegetables to his repertoire, Lee valued the suggestions his Dad shared with him even as he no longer gardened. The lessons from his father stuck with him for the rest of his life.
In his second book, GARDENING LIFE, Lee really helped me realize it was okay to write like I think. In January , 1995, Lee wrote
“ But no matter how big it gets, my garden gets no work from me this time of the year. I will not even rake the leaves. The woods don’t get raked, do they?”
This was his thought process in the midst of winter when most people are not thinking about the garden. Yet he wrote about anticipating the next season. Lee May was not just a journalist and a gardener, but a storyteller. He shared stories of seasonal change, conversations with strangers on gardening as well as people who became friends – all from gardening.
One story that I found meaningful was the chapter on The Amazing Graces. Two aging women, one African-American and the other white, had developed a lifelong friendship via the garden. Their yards mimicked each other with similar plants shared from cuttings and divisions. Neither women could figure out why there was such divisiveness between the races. Their friendship was colorblind in spite of the times in 1995.
One bit of wisdom that Lee kept close to his heart were words shared by his father, Ples…“It’s a risky run any way you go. Always be prepared to go back over it again if you mess up; if you fail, just plant again.” – January 7, 1994
Lee May is a gardener gone too soon. An African-American man who had no hesitation answering my call and saying yes when asked to visit my little garden in District Heights, Maryland. A gardener who shared my love of Coppola Claret in the garden at dusk. Although he never made it due to his health, this man has certainly played a role in my life as a gardener, a garden writer and a proud African-American woman who writes like I think about the garden.
In the garden,
Teri, Cottage In The Courtby