Serendipity and Living Fossils in Our Garden

Ever since I learned the word–and isn’t it one of those splendid words as intriguing as its meaning?–I’ve loved the concept of serendipity: stumbling upon something brilliant (stumbling’s a great word, too, so visual) while seeking something ordinary.

The happy accident.*

My mother was in her late sixties when my father began showing heartbreaking signs of dementia. Ma was in the throes of despair when serendipity snatched her back.

Rescue came in the form of a dinner invitation from a man they’d seen around town for years but knew only slightly. J.J. Cohn was a producer of sorts, at that point in his eighties. Why Joe Cohn invited Gloria and Arthur Sheekman to dinner all of a sudden was a mystery. But you’ve heard, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform…”

Following Joe into his dining room, Ma was surprised to see the centerpiece on the table was an exquisite bonsai in an antique Chinese pot. Ma had admired bonsais in Japan when traveling but had seen nary a bonsai since. Struck by its beauty, she asked Joe where he got it.

In a movie, at that pregnant moment, violins would swell, cymbals would clash–no, too loud, rather a piano arpeggio–to mark the moment…

The old guy smiled, “It’s one of my trees. I’ve been studying with a bonsai master, Frank Nagata, for years.”

The next Sunday, my mother was in Nagata-san’s class.

Bonsai was an ideal art form for Gloria Stuart. An extraordinarily gifted artist, years before she had a successful shop on L.A.’s Decorator’s Row selling her découpaged lamps, tables, mirrors. Then for decades Ma worked every day at her painting and silkscreens–dubbed a primitive, she had numerous one-man shows and two of her canvasses are in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In future she would become a printer and book artist with her work collected by libraries all over the world.

Why was bonsai ideal for her? It is art combined with nature.

Bonsai, Japanese for “tray planting,” is the Asian art of growing plants–principally trees and shrubs–in containers to render them esthetic miniatures. A bonsai can be an individual specimen or a forest. The plants’ roots are confined to the depth of a fraction of an inch or perhaps a handful of inches. Bonsais are watered, sun-lit, and nourished with infinite care as close as possible to the plants’ natural habitat. Meticulously cared for, these living works of art can be/have been passed down through generations. In Japan, there are bonsais many hundreds of years old.

At the time of Joe’s dinner party, my parents lived in an apartment in Westwood. Some of Ma’s despair was that she had no garden, just a large cement patio. She was a daughter of the earth, after all–on her mother’s side, ten generations that I know of dug in the dirt. (I and my daughters make eleven and twelve.) But it wasn’t long before more than one hundred miniature trees graced the patio. When it became painfully clear Daddy would be best cared for in a facility, Ma managed to buy a fine old house with a garden under majestic old trees. She had benches built near the house to display bonsais large, medium, and small. In the back she had a workbench for rooting cuttings, mixing soil, potting up dishes (I did not inherit my mother’s orderly sense of order). Every day in her eighties, nineties, and then one hundred, out she went to tend and water each bonsai, check on root cuttings, give Charlie the blue jay his peanut. As one of the first Anglos (as well as one of the first women) to be welcomed into the prestigious California Bonsai Society, in addition she gained a warm circle of friends vastly different from those in Hollywood and her art world.

Ma was just going out for a so-so supper. Came home with gifts that nourished her heart and soul the remaining thirty-plus years of her life.

When my mother died in 2010, I gave all but two of her magnificent collection to her bonsai friends and the Japanese Garden of the Huntington Library Botanical Gardens. I kept a glorious forest of ginkgo trees I had loved from its beginning.  In the years since, because Bill and I were often traveling and bonsai need attention every every day, the bonsai was cared for by Ma’s last teacher, Frank Goya. Not long ago when Frank turned 100, Ma’s friend Marianne Yamaguchi took the forest to her incomparable bonsai nursery in West Los Angeles for safekeeping.

But  the time has come when my husband and I have faced the unhappy truth that we must hang up our traveling shoes. Bill is ready for this. But accept it. So last week–I’ve been so impatient!–a generous friend drove the ginkgo forest up to us from L.A. Marianne said our Santa Cruz climate was ideal for it. To my surprise and delight, a friend told us there’s a full-size gingko in town. Deciduous, in autumn the leaves resembling maidenhair fern turn apricot, then drop sometimes all at once, creating a magic carpet of gold. The order Gingkoales first appeared on this planet over 290,000,000 years ago…our ginkgo biloba is the last of its order. So our bonsai forest is a living fossil.

For me, Ma’s forest is more than a magical combination of art and nature. I can imagine my mother’s hands shaping the bed of soil in the chocolate brown dish, then carefully setting each little gray tree in place. I have long held the notion (purely based on emotion, far from scientific) that when we touch an inanimate object, the imprint leaves cells, microbes, smudges, flakes behind, and some of them endure. I vividly remember being in Mumbai, in a house where Gandhi had an apartment on an upper floor. Walking down the stairs with my right hand on the railing, I was suddenly struck with the thought my hand was touching Gandhi’s…cells of his were still there! And so I look at works of découpage and oil paintings, silk screens my mother has created and like to imagine there are traces of her on the surface. But little trees! The bark of the old trees–the forest is close to fifty years old now–is imprinted with her touch. Thus I cherish this bonsai for more than its visual beauty.

Now should I take up my mother’s mantle and pursue the art of bonsai? While I look forward to joining the Santa Cruz bonsai club and learning how to care for the forest–how to prune its new growth come spring–at this stage in my life I’d be well advised just to love and tend the bonsai. Continue counting my abundant blessings…thank my lucky stars. Far from despondent–I have never been happier…

* Velcro, silly putty, popsicles, penicillin, teflon, and the microwave oven are reputed to be products of serendipity…

Wiki tells us the word comes from The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy tale that found its way into the Talmud thence Voltaire thence Horace Walpole, who coined the word… See what I mean, a word as intriguing as its meaning… August 22, 2023.

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