Addiction Recovery Story #19, Virginia Bluebell: Fences Help a Garden Grow
My stories here have focused mostly on my unsteady footing. Although I say I broke up with sugar, I’ve reported on slips since starting this series January 31. I promised myself — and you — that I would face and write about feelings that come up when I put down sweet treats. Now these will be “Addiction Recovery” stories. I am on my way.
Bluebells are beautiful.
And their fragrance, distilled into a pretty bottle, or a jar of rich cream, is intoxicating. British perfumer Jo (Joanne) Malone sells a heady Wild Bluebell fragrance. I’ve had a spritz in the brand’s boutiques and, years back, in an alcove at Bergdorf Goodman. But I have not yet splurged/bought anything in the line, not even the liquid Body & Hand Wash.
Oh, Bluebell, I say to the salesperson as I breathe in the scent.
Wow. That smells so good. I can’t get it today, but one day, I will.
The salesperson smiles. I turn away, looking longingly at the bottles. I leave with a Bluebell dream in my pocket, heading back to my ordinary life.
I love blue, purply blue and purple garden flowers. Pansies, irises, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, lilacs — and wisteria, the twining vine that covers the outer walls at the Van Vleck House & Gardens here in town.
Yet: The Bluebell….I think Dan may have grown these in or near our rocky back garden, but I barely noticed or appreciated them.
Something blue kept showing up, but I’ve been too tired or weary to notice. They seemed delicate and weak. I focus on what isn’t growing rather than what is. I want velvety roses and snowball-sized dahlias to snip and put in china pitchers on the mantel.
Weeding requires a lot of work.
The name Virginia Bluebell brings to mind my girlhood friend Debbie’s mother, Virginia, and my dear friends (like family) A. and M., who met at the University of Virginia and even married there.
My first-grade classmate, Eddie Hartman, lived on Virginia Avenue in Dumont. As an eighth grader, I got a kick out of his little brother, Lenny (sp). He was in the group of lower grade Saint Mary’s School kids who busted out of the red-brick school for recess, ready to play. They ran and chased in that asphalt parking lot, their cheeks turning red, the boys’ navy blue ties flying in the wind, while we older girls supervised.
We can’t bring back the past, and we can’t change it. We can remember it for what it was, in its moments of truth and happiness.
We were young.
The deep dive into sugar started innocently enough, with events like the bake sales in the Saint Mary’s lunchroom (near the Trophy Room, where shiny basketball trophies were displayed in glass cases).
For me, bake sales symbolized fun, color, party, splurge. Abandon. Friendship. Beauty. Joy. Freedom. Style. Shopping. Cute cakes in pleated, pastel wrap skirts (crinkly Cake Mate paper cupcake liners). We wore uniforms every day except school picture day — pleated navy blue plaid skirts, short-sleeved white blouses, navy blue vests, snap neckties, navy knee socks. Bake sales were hot news.
But after college, and my mother’s death from cancer at the end of my sophomore year, I began turning to sweets more and more on my journey, to soften my landing when I could not stand up for myself.
In the New York City magazine world, I was uncomfortable being assertive. I was prone to be sweet and kind to all — it came from a genuine place in my heart. It was the house I had built for myself.
But in the real world, especially in a competitive, creative field, we meet up with every kind of person — friendly, gifted, brusk, golden-hearted, fun-loving, generous, true, witty, awkward, pretentious. Ivy League, sour, bitter, cynical, two-faced, awkward, jealous, shy. Stylish, stiff, clock-watching, gracious, biting, high-brow, gossipy, lying, cutthroat. City-smart, Midwestern, unstable, wealthy. Demanding.
That was hard. Not all nice. Cross-section of people, mostly women, many near the age of my lost mother. In a flicker, I’d see her in their belted dresses or short salon hairdos.
My sugar consumption gradually grew, with coffee-wagon muffins, newsstand candy bars, a rich, layered brownie from Zaro’s Bakery as a payday splurge.
After being promoted at a best-selling women’s magazine from Editorial Assistant to Junior Writer by age 26, and getting my own nice office with windows, I froze. I tanked. I lost my writing flow. Words didn’t come, as they do today on this Rose Gold MacBook — or at least, they didn’t come without torture and second-guessing.
I knew the editor I was writing for was.not.happy.with.my.work. (I do see her side a bit better with age. As a budding food writer, I didn’t know what Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was, or how brutally hot it was during Arizona summers, so readers there would want to cook dinner in their microwaves. In the 1980s, microwave cooking recipes were new.)
I walked into the Xerox room (where the copy machine was) one day and the editor’s face flushed. She was flustered. She was making copies of my story title choices — submitted to her on the blue lined paper we fed through our electric typewriters. In that moment, she knew, and I knew, that she was gathering ammunition to get me fired, to show The Powers That Be my unsatisfactory work.
It was around that time that I headed one dark evening after leaving the office to a newsstand on 42nd Street, near the New York Public Library. I chose not one, but two chocolate bars. I unwrapped and ate them.
The next day, I didn’t feel so good.
And later that year, I would, indeed, be fired.
When my mother, Anne, was in college, she worked in the New York Public Library. Her long-time friend, Alice, my pen pal on and off over the years, worked there, too. They both went to Fordham University. In her neatly penned script, Alice shared stories with me, memories of the stacks.
It’s not lost on me, as I grow older, that I might have been looking for my mother, or mother love, in those candy bars near the library that night — something to bolster my confidence, strengthen me. Comfort to take me in and guide me, help me. But those sweets were fake friends, false mothers. My mother liked Hershey Bars, but a Hershey Bar was not my mother.
Still, I sometimes wonder — was my subconscious hoping my Mom was peeking out from those tall library windows, pulling back the curtain, somehow seeing me, watching out for me? I needed her, and wanted her.
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to drive my imagination
— “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones, 1965
Dan and I add to our small front, side and back gardens a lot. I buy flower seeds and spring bulbs at Whole Foods, blooming perennials from the Master Gardeners, plants at at my beloved Bartlett’s in Clifton — I even shop Garden Club sales and nurseries in Connecticut, when I visit Sis at her condo on the marina. Dan has bought grab bags of dry tubers at Presby Memorial Iris Gardens on Upper Mountain Avenue. They yield majestic, frilly flowers that look like party dresses.
But don’t imagine our gardens as large and remarkable. Picture a very ordinary 1923 house with a hit-or-miss assortment of flowers. (But do see the sunflowers Dan plants every year along our curb.) We do our best, but our best doesn’t always bloom forth. One year, the peach tree bore fruit —the next year, it didn’t.
Squirrels dig up bulbs. Deer now eat every single tulip head — pure pink, ruffly red, bright orange. (We switched to daffodils this year.) Mites devour rose leaves until they look like sad lace. Cabbage worms, the worst, fatten up by eating hole after hole in our petunias, if the deer didn’t get to the flowers first.
Life, parenting challenges, depression or anxiety over bills can take over. Dan forgets to sow his pumpkin seeds in the front, and I intentionally don’t remind him. (The neighborhood children remember his large pumpkins on the vines.) I’m too weary to get last year’s dahlia tubers from our dark, messy basement — conscious decision to let the beauty lie hidden there.
No. Picture a couple doing their best in life. A woman and a man who have admired other gardens and tried to grow their own since their marriage in 1991.
On walks, we stopped and stared at the front lawn of that ranch house on Alexander Road, by the brook — it was full of red and yellow tulips, hundreds of them, every spring. Dan would try to estimate how many bulbs we would need to copy that. I thought he was dreaming. We admire the resilient clumps of daffodils with fancy collars on Norwood Avenue, thriving between ivy and ground cover on a hilly corner.
I like the garden at the blue storybook cottage with picket fence, right next to historic (since 1848) Applegate Farm, now ice cream central on Grove Street. I want an old-fashioned fence so climbing flowers can cling to it. Our back fence is broken, with large gaps. Deer lope right into our yard for lunch.
We need fences to keep buffet eaters out. We need bug spray that won’t kill the pansies, and rose spray that will fight the mites but allow for the showy blooms.
And I need fences in my life, in my recovery program.
I need a beginning and an end to my meals. I need to plan my food, to have healthy meal components in our fridge and in our cupboards.
Day by day, I have that, and I’m doing that.
Fences feel safe, fences feel right. They can preserve beauty and keep out wild things.
I can live with these fences. I trust I will bloom and grow.
I published my first story about sugar addiction, “#1, Buttercup: I Know an Addict When I See One,” on January 31, 2021. My next will be “#20, Beach Rose/Salt Spray Rose.” The hot pink roses have been one of my favorite Cape Cod touchstones since I was a teen. I’m giving the stories flower names, from the tiniest bright yellow bloom I saw as a girl on a summer night in Bedford Park to big, wide-open garden varieties, which I hope will signify my journey to self-knowledge on this sweet and sour road.
Alice Garbarini Hurley lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her family. She worked on staff at Seventeen, Good Housekeeping and Sesame Street Parents magazines, and freelanced as a fact checker at Cigar Aficionado. She has blogged daily at her website, Truth and Beauty, since 2010. Alice is in a recovery program.