Dear Frances Hodgson Burnett,

The Secret Garden

I cannot remember a time when I hadn’t read and loved The Secret Garden, and decades after my mother bought it for me, your book still loomed large in

Impatiens

my consciousness. In my forties and fifties I had a garden, and although it was hardly secret, it always reminded me of the one in your book. Behind our Hoboken row house,  our yard was really more brick-paved patio than garden. But each spring I bought many flats of multicolored impatiens and devoted an entire day to planting them along the back and side borders. Along with the Rose of Sharon trees lining the other side, they created what to this city girl was a charmed circle of blooming color. There, on summer afternoons, I’d retreat to admire my handiwork, think, and read.

When I was in my mid-forties, I began having panic attacks. They followed the illnesses and deaths of my father and my first husband and the mental and physical decline of my mother. Caring for my mom while also raising two abruptly fatherless adolescents and teaching full-time depleted me. Life seemed bleak. One day my therapist told me I was a catastrophizer, a person who looks at a hangnail and foresees an amputated arm. Following that session, I retreated to my garden, seeking the safety of my familiar fenced-in cloister. That afternoon the garden reminded me not of the one you describe so memorably, but of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, the sad, sour children you created to tend to it. An orphan and a motherless invalid, Mary and Colin are retreating from sheltered dull lives ravaged by loss, neglect, and fear. These two find refuge in your walled Eden where they are restored to physical and mental health. As a lonely only child, I’d identified with them both.

But that day in the garden with my therapist’s pronouncement echoing in my head, I recalled not only the children, but Colin’s father. Now that man was a catastrophizer! This grieving, humpbacked widower took one look at his newborn son and convinced himself that the infant had inherited the hump and was so weak and sickly that he wouldn’t live to reach adulthood. His dire predictions made my conviction that my daughter’s school trip to Greece would end in a plane crash and my son would be mugged on the subway home from school seem quite reasonable. I remembered how, treated like an invalid, Colin becomes one and terrifies himself by imagining his own imminent death. He hasn’t inherited the hump, but he has a catastrophizer’s DNA for sure. Sitting there, I recognized both Cravens as kindred spirits.

Toad in the Garden

Then I reminded myself that Colin is a kid in a kid’s book. Of course he recovers. A little fresh air, sunshine, hard work, and good company are all he needs. And his recovery prompts his father’s. But I was just a few years away from fifty. And my life wasn’t some bucolic British fairytale. My surviving parent wouldn’t recover. My life was an urban disaster and, to prove it, a huge green toad, a refugee from the local sewer system, turned up in my garden. When the local alley cats began to glide along the fence top, the visitor’s prospects seemed as grim as mine.

With the help of neighbors, I rescued the toad. I kept going to the therapist and teaching my students and seeing my kids off at airports and planting impatiens and reading in the garden. My panic attacks became less frequent, even after my mother died six months before I hit fifty. To get through that birthday , I enlisted the help of my kids who, at summer’s end, were actually safe at home. We planned a potluck in the garden and invited everybody we knew, including an interesting man I’d recently met and a new boyfriend my daughter met at her summer job. Contrary to my expectations, it didn’t rain, it wasn’t too hot, people did come, we didn’t run out of food or wine, no one suffered food poisoning or tripped over a protruding brick, and I had a wonderful time turning fifty. Soon afterwards I began to think about writing for publication.

Pot Luck Plenty!

So thank you for writing a book that spoke to me when I was an anxious little girl and then again when I was gob-smacked by midlife losses.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Dear Frances Hodgson Burnett,

  1. A beautiful example of how works of art can change our lives if we let them. Thanks you Jane… and can’t wait for the publicaition of The Bones and the Book this fall!

    • You’re so right about books changing lives, Joyce. This past weekend a ten-year-old boy remembered something he’d read in a fantasy novel about how to survive in a swift river. What he remembered helped him get to a rock and grab onto it just as he was about to go over a HUGE waterfall after a boating accident. That book not only changed his life, but saved it! He managed to stay on that rock until the rescue helicopter crew got to him. Whew!

  2. Annette Hollander

    I loved that book, too. And I was also a lonely only child- is that why? Do you think our grandchildren would like it (not being lonely or only)?
    I’m glad you started writing for publication and I am looking forward to “The Bones and the Book.”

    • Annette, so far, my grand daughter ten has not opted to read my very own copy of The Secret Garden which I gave her ages ago. She seems to prefer the many series books available now. This saddens me, but I think many of my childhood faves are now quaint artifacts! I had been to England twice by age 9, and that made a real difference in my appreciation of all things Anglo.

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