Happy Saint Patrick’s Day—from a Gardener Lost in the Irish-American Diaspora


The most popular post ever written on this blog is Fête de la Saint-Fiacre—and a prayer too. You likely never read it, but thousands of folks have since it was written in 2013. I wrote it for the saint’s feast day, and it was posted just a few days before I was married for the second time.

There is a subtext to the whole thing, something I couldn’t write about then, but I can, and will now, as the The Banshees of Inisherin plays in the background… Somehow, it’s very fitting.

I talk a lot about my Sicilian heritage, and my father’s side of the family, but that’s because I grew up knowing them, hearing their stories, and being taken care of by them. I was embraced as family.

Mom’s history is a wee bit more complicated and I’ll try to keep to the simple points here. Both her maternal grandfather, and biological father, had Irish roots, but this was not proven true until I had her DNA tested. When I saw these results for she and myself, I cried, and it still makes me cry. I get weepy just looking at the names of these places.

I very much enjoy history, dates, and facts. Growing up in a Catholic school, I knew Irish Catholics. They knew who they were and where the came from, and while I thought I might be too, I knew that my mother, and her mother, had stories, but not the kind with proof, or facts. One of the reasons I became so interested in family history as a kid, was to combat what I felt were stories being told to me about who I was, that I very much chose not to believe—until I had proof.

During college I met a young man a bit older than me, and I was flattered to know he’d taken any interest in me at all because I thought he was handsome and incredibly brilliant. He was taking graduate level courses and was drawn to my academic interests so he’d seek me out for conversations about modernist language, critical theory, and all things literary. I’m sad we lost touch when he went off to finish a PhD.

In one of his last messages to me that I recently found, he talked about spending the summer back in Portland and wanting to read to me while I gardened. Then he followed up with feeling like he’d been a bit too forward with me.

Reading that now, I’m the old woman happily looking back and remembering that time with great fondness. This was just when I was getting very ill. I’d spent the summer before in my garden in a hammock reading the complete works of Nietzsche, and was obsessed with my first rose garden planted amongst the industrial rubble that was my first back garden. Now I pay Audible to read to me.

From my back porch, I waved at the Amtrak train as it went by, and I had more roses that summer than I ever have had at any other time in my life. My swelling disease was changing my mind though. I had brain swells. I spoke slower. I couldn’t find the words for things, and after the summer of the complete works of Nietzsche, I barely read any books for well over a decade.

I crawled in order to garden. From the ground, I was able to master some serious rose pruning skills. It was the most devastating time in my life. I did not yet know what exactly was causing me to decline. My friend though from class, kept writing to me, and I before he left, I’d learned the sad stories of his family.

He was a proud Irish-American from Pennsylvania. His family had been coalminers, and life had not been great for them. Most of them had died from health issues, and for the first time I heard first-hand black lung stories. I remember when we met he called my mind and language Joycean, and he once said, “You are so Irish and you don’t even realize it do you?”

He was correct. He found me speechless in that moment, and oddly, year to year I’m still trying to get to know who my Irish people were—and are…

That comment stung because I wanted to tell him my story, but it wasn’t totally mine to tell. I was ashamed and confused by it. I’m much less so now, and as I come into thinking more about gardening and the natural world, and my love of horticulture, and the world of words, I want to go to Ireland more and more.

Great-grandma Lucy Caulkins Osborne (holding my mom) and Great-grandpa George Osborne. Grandma Lucy was a direct descendant of Hugh Calkins, while her husband was adopted by the sister of his birth father.

I’m a spaghetti Westerner. I say that a lot—and I mean it. The West is a concept. It’s where many of those who did not fit into the social strata of “the East” came to be free of the pressures they experienced there. My great-grandpa George is an interesting example of that. He never really belonged anywhere, and he lived that way, but he came west from Nebraska with his wife and family he loved, and he worked as a Pinkerton man, spying on the timber laborers in the bars of Aberdeen, Washington, while the family and everyone else just thought he was a ne’er-do-well who drank all day and lived off of the money his diner-owning wife made at her restaurant.

George and Lucy met as teens, then married and lived in a one-room sod house until just before the Dust Bowl hit. Grandma Lucy was descended from a man who arrived in the colonies in 1640, and George’s married birth father’s family had been in New York for generations. His mother was an Irish immigrant. He never knew his parents though, because he was sent to his maternal aunt and her husband. Soon after his arrival his adopted mother died.

We don’t know why his mother gave him away, but we suspect she was young and worked for the married man either in his home, or at his business. I would love to find out who she was though, and find out what her name was, and I think through her I have cousins, but it will take time to sort it all out. I may or may not ever find that time. Life is funny that way.

Dora Butcher and two of her children. My mother’s birth father is on the right.

My grandmother, daughter of Lucy and George, was married several times. To get out of her parent’s home, she made the not-so-brilliant choice of falling in love with the recently widowed neighbor with a daughter who lived next door to she and her family in Aberdeen, WA. Not long after, they were married and my mother was born. Before he entered AA, he was an alcoholic, and the marriage did not last long due to both of them not getting along. I’m happy to say that he went on to get sober and had a third marriage and a whole other family that we’re close to, but my mother and her two sisters (all with different mothers) didn’t get to know one another until their own kids were practically grown. They’re family now and it’s nice to have my aunts and cousins.

This grandpa has an Irish last name—one that can be considered more Orange or Northern Irish, so my mom always told people she was Northern Irish, but the truth is more complicated than that. We seem to have very little DNA associated with Northern Ireland at all and she was a Protestant because of her grandmother and her family—not because of the connections to Ireland.

Grandpa’s mother Dora had children by a few different men. The man on the left seen in the photo above was 1/2 Portuguese and she married his father when she was 12, in a timber camp in Northern California where her Civil War vet father took his two young children to live with him. (His second wife, their mother, had died in childbirth while he was an Indian agent after the war in Oklahoma.) So Dora, well, she made up a lot of stories about her life, but I can’t imagine what she lived through. I know her brother eventually disowned her. I found this out by writing to his daughters. They didn’t know anything about her and at first told me I was mistaken. That hurt.

I found no marriage certificate for Dora and the father of my grandfather. I found nothing on the birth certificate. I think I have heard his father died in a tragic accident and that doesn’t surprise me if he worked as a logger.

The only solid lead I ever had was that he may have come from coal mining country in Pennsylvania.

Sure, I could ask my family, but there are still a lot of stories. I’m no longer sure what hurts more to me, the truth, the continued avoidance of it to prevent the pain, or the semblance sometimes, of a desire for some kind of legitimacy. What matters to all of us seems to be not really knowing. It’s not easy to be ok with that, but I’m embracing it more as I age.

Additionally, my mom was a child who experienced extreme parental alienation so the concept of “the truth” hurts her in ways I don’t understand. Her entire reality and broken identity was based on lies her mother told her for years. Stories she learned to tell herself, making her own way in life, moving away, starting a family, healed her. She didn’t see her birth father much from the time she was 4 until she’d had her first child. They got through things though, but it hurt. It hurt a lot. He had always wanted to be part of her life, but Grandma had always told her that he never wanted to see her again. I’m glad that we talk about this kind of thing now, and folks like my mom can receive more help and support. We name it now. This experience damaged her a lot. It hurt many of us too. It was hard for me as a kid to explain to people why I didn’t know my birth grandpa well and he only lived 2 hours away. Even then, it was also a betrayal to Grandma to speak to him.

It was the first grudge of sorts I even knew, and it felt wrong to me as a child.

So I AM of Irish descent on both sides of my mom’s family. Disconnectedly so…

I LOVE potatoes. I devour oysters and fish. I sprinkle dulse on everything. I love wool and my fair skin feels ruddier by the day. I love nothing more than being near the sea and far afield. I could spend my cold dark nights in pubs with music and laughter. I can tell you with full certainty, I get all of this from my mother, as well as her knack for storytelling and love of jokes, and the pleasure I get from making someone else smile or laugh.

We are at our best when we’re acting like screwballs.

Mom just recently told me on what was nearly her deathbed that my work in the green world does come from she and her mother. Grandma Lucy liked to remark they were similar in that way and that they didn’t get it from her. Grandma and Mom are/were earthy.

But Mom stopped short of saying where they did get it—because no one knows the name of Grandpa George’s mom, and we don’t really know if that’s the source. We’re clueless. There is no evidence to back us up. She looked sad and small in a bed in the ICU.

Whoever she was, she and her people (our people) live on in us in ways that have enabled Grandma, Mom, and I to survive things with humor and a unique fortitude we don’t often see in others we know. I just cannot express how grateful I am for these gifts. Hell, I needed these skills just to negotiate the family issues!

Over the years I’ve been adopted by various Irish-Americans, and our family was adopted by the Irish priest that married my parents after he was semi-retired. Father B was so adamant about NOT wanting to die in Ireland, when his family took him home for the last time, we couldn’t say goodbye, and that kind of haunts me. Mom and Dad traveled to Ireland to be with his family after he passed, and while she did not yet know she had genetic ties to Donegal, she felt strongly about the region when they travelled there from Galway. She enjoyed Ireland a lot.

But one last story… This one is for Father B on St Patrick’s Day.

This is the story of how I learned what it meant to be Irish that one Easter when my father invited an English Lord, his wife, and her horticulturist son to our home.

We often had private Catholic masses at home, and Father B baptized my mother as Catholic after she’d had cancer the second time. Raised Protestant by her mother and grandmother, it was another challenge for me to deal with at school as a kid. Luckily I wasn’t my mother’s godmother until I was an adult, but this is all part of my Irish-American life, and I hope you’re laughing a little bit right now because you should be. Yes, I am my own mother’s godmother.

So, Dad published a fly fishing book written by this English Lord. The author had long wanted to visit the PNW, his wife’s son was moving to the US for a job at a large nursery in the midwest (he was maybe near 40 and unmarried) and so they decided to tour the county a bit before leaving him at his new home. (Sadly, I don’t remember his name or where he oversaw liner production. It would be fun to see him again.)

We’re a rather large family, and Easter brunch/dinner was going well enough. Father was NOT happy to have the English Lord in our home though, and for us, we didn’t fully understand. Father was always fun and chatty, but he was rather dour that day. To make him laugh a bit, I pushed back with our guests since I couldn’t stand to listen to the wife speak not-so-kindly of the United States. I kept changing the conversation back to plants and gardens. The more charming the horticulturist son found me, the more irritated she was at me. Father B started to perk up. Easter was becoming a bit more interesting to him.

Then we went downstairs to where our large dining table is setup. We were a group of nearly 20 family members. Things were going smoothly, and then we hit a rough patch. I don’t recall what was said, but the English Lord said something political that was not appropriate concerning England and Ireland (I think), and Father B lost it. He reminded him that he was in an Irish supporting household and that his father was proud to have been arrested for his work with the IRA. (I can’t recall what the connection was, but Micheal Collins era was part of his family’s history.) The English Lord apologized, and things settled down, but our family was a bit unsettled by it all. We’d never seen him act like that.

I rarely talk about that experience. It’s challenging to find the words for it.

Dad and Mom later apologized to Father B, and we all learned a bit more about him as a person, about his childhood, and his father. This is when Father B talked to me and explained that we were disconnected from Ireland, and he felt kind of responsible, and he wanted us to be better connected. We are part of the story of Ireland too, and he very much wanted us to feel included. Even then we didn’t know that the DNA was so strong, but he felt it, and had known Mom since she was 19, since before she’d made things right with her dad. He felt like a father figure to her, and he was like an Irish grandfather to me, but this might confuse many practicing Catholics. Our relationship with him was very close. He was mostly retired then, he had the funds to own a small home, and he chose to be alone instead of living with the other priests. He worked part-time, but he spent a lot of time with our family. He ate dinner with us, went to movies, came to all of our birthday parties, and we got to know his family. Mom became his caregiver more and more as he needed help. We were all there for one another.

So while this blog has been a lovely place to stir the pot, it is the post to the Patron Saint of Gardeners, Saint Fiacre of Breuil, that has brought many readers here. As Mom would say, “It’s a sign!” And when I say it’s the most read post on the blog, I mean it’s read A LOT more than anything else.

I don’t really think that it is a sign of anything other than folks searching and finding my prayer to the saint, but today, all I want to say is that I’m proud to have Irish heritage, and I’m sorry that the lives of my relatives were so challenging that my family ties, and bonds, were broken. But I’m a propagator after all, and I know what good can come from cuttings. It’s not always bad.

So, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!!!—from a gardener lost in the Irish-American diaspora (and from Mom too). Having said that though, I feel like I’m not so lost, and I look forward to hearing anyone’s comments on what it means for them to garden and to be Irish, or to garden and love plants and be of Irish-American heritage. (You can write to me privately too if you’d like to share your more painful family experiences if they’re at all like mine.)

As I work to craft a more finely-tuned garden here at home this year, I’ll try to add things that will help me to meditate a bit on this part of my life. My garden has always been designed more around feeling than seeing. Nothing about this part of my life has felt authentically true or comfortable to me though, so I hope, conversations about this will inspire me to try something new.

Mom and I at my 40th birthday party.
Here’s to Spring!! And happy gardening from Gayle. I can’t remember, but I think that is a Rosa ‘Dublin Bay’ off to the left.

A Dream Garden: When I first met mine…

Antiquo jardín del Alcázar de Sevilla (Joaquín Sorolla), 1908.
Writers, dreamers, poets and artists have thought long and hard about gardens for centuries—and so have the more religious and practical among us. At least I imagine they have because I’ve studied such things, but I’m far from certain. So often nowadays I find that these real characters of history are just as real to me as any who are fictional. I guess I’ve grown and that fine line is no longer there. It all blends together. It’s all a pastiche. 
I’m not religious myself, but I was raised in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I now consider myself Catholic by culture. That’s how I ended up visiting España with my parents back in my early 20s. Dad wanted to go there for 10 days to take photos of churches and to visit the region of Estremadura. The three of us traveled south from Madrid during the month of December and I’d like to say that I remember a lot more than I do, but I spent most of my trip feeling unwell. 
At night my dreams were in Spanish. (Back then my Spanish-language fluency was much better, although that had never happened to me before and it felt strange—yes, foreign.) During the daytime, my mind wandered back-and-forth in the backseat. I felt between worlds.  
As we drove I thought a lot about what a cousin had recently told me concerning our Sicilian ancestry. He’d researched our family as part of his Master’s thesis and had found that one of our earliest relatives was actually a Morisco from Spain. Fresh in my mind was the way my father had vehemently been unable to accept this discovery. Today he’s softened and has accepted that it’s likely true, but at that time, it dramatically altered how we saw ourselves.

Jardín de Carlos V en el Alcázar de Sevilla (Joaquín Sorolla), 1910.

Before I knew it we were in the beautiful city of Sevilla. We stayed there for a few nights and went to several museums, a Flamenco performance, we ate delicious food, and then one day, while walking around on my own, I stumbled upon the Alcázar of Seville. I went inside. 

The gardens of the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla changed me. I think I was transported there away from myself. They were—and still are—my dream gardens. It was there I felt so many new and wonderful things as I saw plants that seemed so unreal to me. I felt so alive and so awake. In many ways it felt more like home to me than my own home. I had never felt that way before and I haven’t felt that way again.

To me that’s what a dream garden is about and it’s what we seek to make when we design gardens. We want what I can only describe as being a kind of religious experience. Like in meditation, we consciously count our breathing until we transcend and forget ourselves. We want gardens to give us that kind of rush too. It’s deep. I know. It seems very much connected to something inside of us that’s human. Many of us crave this feeling. It’s spiritual whether we like to admit it or not. It’s calming. It’s soothing.

To Christians, it’s a return to Eden, and to those who follow Islam, it’s called Paradise. In Arabic the word is جنّة or Jannahand that’s short for garden. That day in Sevilla I felt like I’d visited Paradise. Ever since then, as a gardener, I’ve wanted to recreate that feeling.

That has been my dream.

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)