A Widower’s Garden
There is a neatly folded red sweater on the pillow of Robert Slabe’s bed where his late wife Elsie used to sleep. She passed away a little over two years ago of congestive heart failure wearing that sweater. When Slabe wakes up in the morning next to it, he looks up at her wedding photo hanging on the wall past the foot of the bed.
“That’s my pride and joy,” he says quietly of the picture. The ornate frame is surrounded with pink paper roses, one of her favorite flowers. “I’ve got the same picture in my wallet and on the kitchen table.”
They started gardening together in 1958, after moving to their first house two years after they got married. As he sits in his living room going through stacks of garden photos, he explains the division of labor they used for all those years.
“She would pick the flowers and most of the time I would do the digging and she would do the planting,” he says. “We loved the colors, the flowers and we were proud of all the compliments we got.”
Their yard was a showplace, changing each season with new discoveries planted in a variety of beds and containers.
Elsie was an artist, working in oil paints, and a collector of dolls and knick knacks.
He’s had to give up on gardening outdoors, at 86 it’s just physically too much for him. But inside he faithfully cares for all the houseplants his wife treasured. The windowsills and sunroom are covered in Christmas cactus, schefflera, prayer plants and pothos. More grow in other rooms of the house.
When she became ill, Elsie could no longer go down the stairs to the basement to maintain the plants. He reassured her that he was following her instructions carefully, being sure never to overwater them. “She always said to me, ‘when I go, my plants will probably go too.’ ”
“After she passed, I still do it in memory of her. I told her I’ll keep them as long as I could, I want to do it for her,” Slabe says.
The schefflera has grown to be a small tree and is happy to have the bright light of the living room window to bask in. The branches were decorated by Elsie and are still adorned with trinkets she collected over the years. A vining pothos trails across the entryway to the sunroom, which is where many of the healthy Christmas cactus reside.
The couple lived in the same neighborhood in Braddock and were introduced by a friend. As Slabe sat with the friend in his house, Elsie descended the stairs.
“She came down and was in back of me, said hello and that was it,” he says with a broad smile. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”
He called her home, but suddenly hung up, nerves getting the best of him. The next day he let the phone ring long enough for her to answer. Their first date was set and in three months they were engaged.
“I told her all through the years, when you said yes, you made my life, you made my day,” he says choking up.
He makes sure her houseplants get everything they need and it’s one of the things that offers a daily reminder to him of the precious time they had together.
“I miss her terribly, we were married 59 years and I knew her for 62. The only woman I ever dated. We had a great life.”
Doug Oster is editor of EverybodyGardens.com, a gardening website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-965-3278.