Elsa Bakalar was my friend. This morning I got the call that I had been dreading. Elsa passed away peacefully on January 29.
We moved to Heath in December of 1979, but I did not meet Elsa, who also lived in Heath until I began writing a weekly garden column, Between the Rows, for The Recorder. I had heard about Elsa and her garden and finally got up my courage to ask her for an interview. It must be admitted that I was not an expert gardener, but got the job because I wrote a compelling letter saying I would interview all the expert gardeners in our region.
I had seen Elsa’s initialed articles in Mike’s West County News launched not too long before we moved to Heath and I imagined a young couple sharing a romantic journalistic enterprise. When we met I was somewhat shocked to find that it was more in the nature of a romantic post retirement project. They taught me that it is never too late for new beginnings.
Elsa not only gave me an interview, about starting flower seeds in the dead of winter, she began my education. I had been concentrating on vegetables and had hardly planted a marigold. She also hired me to work alongside her at Greenfield Community College where she was the Director of Community Service.
All too soon I was trying to tend a 90 foot long perennial border, filled with divisions from Elsa’s garden. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is not what Elsa expected from her students. Although she had very definite opinions of her own, she always insisted that gardeners please themselves, and plant what they liked, in the way they liked.
Elsa became known for her garden designs, how she combined color and form, but in the end she said, all the colors of nature go together, and there was no point worrying excessively. .
I was fortunate enough to participate in one of the Study and Travel courses Elsa taught at GCC. After familiarizing ourselves with England and its gardens in class for a few weeks, 35 or so of us set off to tour the great and intimate gardens of England with Elsa, entertained by her wit and knowledge. It was well known that where Elsa was, there was a party.
Right up to the end when she was frail Elsa made a party happen. My husband and I visited her for the last time in mid-January. As it happened, two other friends arrived as well. There was chocolate cake and candies. Laughter and talk. Another of Elsa’s parties.
If there is any word that defines Elsa it is teacher. She had taught elementary children in a village school in England, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in NYC, and more locally, the Academy at Charlemont. She taught garden workshops in her own garden, and she went on the road lecturing, teaching, amusing, and delighting audiences all across the country. Sometimes she lectured to local garden clubs, and sometimes she gave workshops or lectures for august organizations like Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, the New York Botanical Garden, and even the Whitney Museum of Art.
Together we wrote an article for Horticulture Magazine. I loved interviewing Elsa for that piece about Color in the Garden because we talked about so much more than the task at hand. I learned about her job teaching in the Penshurst Village school in England during WWII where her young students brought her jam jars filled with flowers. She lived in a cottage where she gave the goats free range, and entertained a number of servicemen who seemed to find their way to her door.
She told me about her days working for British Information Services in Rockefeller Center in NYC, and meeting Mike. When we heard that Benny Goodman had died she reminisced about the apartment she and Mike shared on West 13th Street, and how they wore out three Benny Goodman records – and the linoleum dancing in the kitchen.
Elsa edited and revised the article with me numerous times, and then the editor at Horticulture had a few things to suggest. It finally appeared in January 1987 with gorgeous photographs by Garry Mottau. Elsa, Gary and I all met in Elsa’s July garden at dawn to get the best light. I ran around holding a shiny sheet of thermax insulation to help gently direct sun onto Elsa’s face or particular flower. It was an amazing photography lesson for me, and lots of fun.
When she retired from GCC, she wrote a book, A Garden of One’s Own: Making and Keeping Your Flower Garden that was published in 1994. Mottau again did the photos. I remember the discussions about a title. She would have no designing or creating. “Make and keep were good anglo-saxon words,” she said. That is what she chose.
Elsa was just a little older than my mother, but I never thought of her in those terms. Still I loved hearing about the girls, students from Fieldston where she taught, who spent summers with her in Heath for several years. Elsa once told me that they had all gone on an outing to Tanglewood and some music lover looked at this bevy of girls and asked what camp they belonged to. One girl drew herself up, . “We are not a camp. We are Mrs. Bakalar’s girls,” she said with great dignity.
I like to think maybe I became one of Mrs. Bakalar’s girls, too. ###
BETWEEN THE ROWS February 6, 2010