The Abbey of Katherine Joy Aby
My friend Katherine once asked me if I would ever write a story about her. I’d mentioned her a couple of times in essays that were in general about other things, like miracles and love. She was referenced without being named, but she recognized herself in those passages, like this one from an essay about everyday divinity;
“…or in the face of my neighbor, who comes to my home to knock on my door, to take my face in her hands (still dirty from her abruptly abandoned gardening) to kiss my forehead and tell me she loves me before turning and heading back home to continue her planting.”
She sent me a note once about a story I wrote saying simply, “I get a tremendous sense of respect for people in your work. I sense your honor for people in their distinct place. I always feel tender after reading your work. I savor it. Keep it up.” XOXOXOXOXOXO Katherine Aby
Today I hope I can honor my dear friend, for all of us who loved her and lost her suddenly and unexpectedly to a heart attack. I feel so startled by the loss of this tiny woman that took up so much space in this world, in my life and in my heart. A heart so broken as I write these words.
Katherine was a gardener. But truly she was an artist whose medium was plants and blooms and earth and sky. Before I knew her, I used to walk around the block and watch the progression of the landscaping of her property. First, a high berm was built up around the large side yard, then it was filled with tall trees and shrubbery and finally the entire lot was surrounded by a beautiful low iron fence, complete with blunted spikes. I used to joke with my husband that I wouldn’t be surprised if a moat would be going in soon; fully stocked with alligators!
Occasionally I would get a glimpse of her working inside her fortified yard, a small woman ten years my senior, but with ten times my strength and drive. I can’t even recall how or when we first became friends, but I remember I was smitten after a few brief conversations. Her straightforward and unsparing way of speaking and her curmudgeonly manner were exactly the qualities that drew me to her. Once, when my youngest child Harper was just a preschooler, Katherine gave us a tour of her yard. As we passed her raspberry bushes, Harper plucked a berry and Katherine looked straight at her and said in a level and serious tone, ‘Don’t you eat my raspberries.’ Harper looked her in the eye and popped the berry into her mouth, to which Katherine declared, ‘You little criminal!’ Her words could be sharp but her eyes always betrayed her. They smiled with mischief.
She was guarded with her heart though, and it was a delicate and volatile journey to be invited in. But just like her cloistered garden, once you were allowed past the iron gates, there was such beauty and tenderness there, with treasures she’d hidden everywhere in plain sight. She once told me as I admired one such detail in her garden; a small plant hidden in the curve of a large boulder, ‘You notice every little thing I place here. You really do see.’ It was high praise, and I savored it because she could just as abruptly dismiss you and usher you unceremoniously out of her space or her favor. It was a friendship that required patience. Patience that was always rewarded.
Often, just to tease her, I would tempt her ire and swing open the gates to her garden inward any time I passed her yard on my walks, leaving them like that as I went on my way. If she caught me, she’d hang out her front door and scold me, and I’d always say, “Oh Katherine, I’m just letting the love flow in!” She’d shake her head, clearly annoyed, but she couldn’t keep a smile from her lips. Other days, after visiting her I’d have such a full heart that I’d leave the gates of her garden opening outward behind me as I left. She’d furrow her brow at me and I’d explain, “But Katherine, I’m just letting all your love flow out into the world.”
Everything Katherine gave to others came from a place of deep love. And because of Katherine, my garden grows greener and blooms brighter. My heart does too. We all miss you so. Safe journey and Godspeed to the gates of heaven, gates that will surely swing open as you enter, to let the love in.
(Katherine’s garden was featured in a magazine and can be seen here.)