Editor’s note: Yaddo Gardens reopen to the public on Monday after being closed for more than two years.
No discussion of my mother’s childhood was complete without a mention of Yaddo Gardens.
Beverly Curtiss, née White, grew up in a Victorian home 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 that changed when my mother was eight years old. Her diabetic mother pricked her finger while hanging curtains. The wound didn’t heal well and my grandmother ended up dying of blood poisoning. Even as her body lay in the living room, my grandfather, a chiropractor at the Washington Bath House, didn’t have the courage to inform his two youngest daughters that their mother was gone. My mother was a smart girl, however, and she overheard her much older sister talking about their mother’s death. After the funeral, my grandfather sent my mother and her sister, 11 months his junior, to relatives in Connecticut they had never met.
Back home, they learned that their father, against his sister’s advice, planned to marry a woman who hated children. After the nuptials, Charlotte made life in this once-loving home a living hell. She was emotionally and mentally abusive towards the children, whom she forced to call her “mother”. Charlotte was the kind of woman who would call my mother a “dirty, filthy pig” if she didn’t take a bath, but “vain” if she did. There was just no fun in Charlotte.
Instead of being able to participate in extracurricular activities like Girl Scouts, Charlotte demanded that my mother come home straight from school to do housework. Charlotte was the quintessential mean stepmother. My grandfather, emotionally unavailable to his children, allowed the abuse.
It was Yaddo Gardens that became my mother’s sanctuary. She was talking about going there for hours, even in the dead of winter, to escape abuse back home. She found solace in the park of this artists’ retreat. It gave him a place to think. It was beautiful and peaceful. It was a place Charlotte couldn’t reach. He offered my mother a place to forget her misery and grief over the death of her own mother. For nearly a decade, Yaddo played a pivotal role in my mother’s emotional well-being.
My aunt and uncles escaped Charlotte’s abuse as soon as they could, leaving one by one my mother’s older sister in 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 into the house. Her father finally got Charlotte to give in and he got my mother a job washing dishes in a kosher hotel. At the end of the summer, he gave my mother two twenty-dollar bills and told her not to come home again.
My mom found a way to finish college with a teaching certificate. She taught in New York for a few years, then fled to California like her older sister had years before. This is where she remained until 2017, getting married and raising two children.
It was by chance 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 mom was that she had an excuse to return to the area to visit us with her two granddaughters, as well as attend her high school and college reunions, which she said. She wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t lived here.
I started freelancing for the Gazette newspapers in 1997. In 2011, my editor gave me an article on 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 comes for a visit.
The following year, my youngest daughter graduated from high school. We insisted that my mother come for graduation because she had always dreamed of seeing all of her grandchildren graduate from high school and then college. However, at that time, it was a difficult and uncomfortable decision for her to make. The year before, my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was extremely difficult to manage at home, which forced him to move to a memory care facility. With great insistence, we got him out solo.
The YGA President’s invitation was not just lip service. She arranged for a docent to give my mother and me a private visit. I didn’t tell my mother exactly what was going to happen, just that we were going to visit the gardens. When we arrived, a well-prepared docent rushed onto the lawn calling my mother’s name,
“Mrs. Curtis? My mother was taken aback, genuinely surprised. Afterwards the docent gave a detailed, interesting and delightful tour, a practice the docents hope to continue when the gardens reopen to the public.
Subsequently, the volunteer gardeners who were working that morning invited us to join them for their break time. They treated my mom like a VIP, giving her and me two tiny bags of potpourri each, one with rose petals and the other with pine cones and pine needles. I always have mine on the shelf in my office to remind me of that special day. I can rarely remember this without being moved to tears by the kindness of this group of volunteers.
My mother was a humble, hard-working woman who never liked anyone bothering for her. I clearly remember watching my mother sitting quietly, munching on a piece of blueberry coffee cake, admiring the scene, realizing that this group had, in her mind, gone to such lengths for her.
So even after the passage of more than six decades, Yaddo Gardens continued to provide my mother with an escape, a solace during the very difficult time when she realized her husband of 56 years was slowly slipping away. For a few hours she could again forget her troubles and simply be collected and comforted by the beauty of this wonderful place.
Three years ago, I started volunteering in the gardens to feel close to my mother who no longer knew me because of Alzheimer’s disease. Whenever I am in the garden, I admire the old roses at the corner of the rose beds, knowing that these plants were growing when my mother came to Yaddo in the 1940s. I imagine my mother allowing their beauty to fill his soul and to keep his spirit intact.
On our last gardening day of the season in 2019, the volunteers sent me home with some of the nearly exhausted rose bushes we had pruned to prepare the bushes for winter. I carefully let the petals dry, and placed them in a small translucent bag. The next time I visited my mother, I brought 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 close to death. During the visit, I found this 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 Gerald BH Solomon National Cemetery in Saratoga, I sprinkled some rose petals in his grave. I believe his version of paradise must be like the gardens of Yaddo.
I am grateful to be part of the Yaddo Garden Association, a group of hardworking, kind and compassionate volunteers who help maintain the beauty and grace of this place which in many ways saved my mother and now offers its own kind unique comfort for me.
Joanne McFadden is a freelance writer.
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Categories: Life and Arts, Saratoga Springs