A garden teaches many things: how to dig in and get dirt under your fingernails; the art of patience; and the constancy of impermanence.
My friend and hero Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, the wonderful Soviet combat airwoman whose memoir I edited, taught me those lessons as well.
For more than half a year I lived inside her mind, burying myself in her story day after day, trying to tell it in a way that felt true. Her sheer tenacity fascinated and awed me, sometimes even more than her physical courage did.
In one chapter, she lands her wooden Po-2 biplane in a village that’s being shelled, soon to be overrun. Instead of abandoning it and evacuating with the other Soviet troops, she borrows a horse to tow and hide it for the night. In the morning it won’t start, so she drains the oil, heats it over a peasant woman’s stove, and pours it back in. She and her biplane live to fly another day. Good lord, who else would go to that kind of effort?
That’s what I call getting your hands dirty. That’s what I call patience. Time after time, she refuses to abandon her craft to the Nazis, to take “no” for an answer when she’s told the skies are no place for her, or to allow herself to be grounded regardless of blizzards or physical exhaustion.
I thought about these things whenever I felt overwhelmed by this project I’d agreed to do, whenever I felt I’d gotten in over my head. I thought about the promise I made to an 87-year old lady who’d braved Nazi bullets and blizzards in an open cockpit wood-and-fabric biplane, and then anti-aircraft fire in the Il-2.
And then I shut the heck up, put my @$$ in a chair in front of the computer for half a year, and slogged through the 415 typewritten pages until the job was done.
I learned a lot about sheer doggedness from Anna’s example, and then did my best to apply it in the re-telling of her story. I still have a lot to learn in the tenacity department compared to that great lady, but at least there’s one more journey behind me, thanks to her.
Impermanence, however, has been more difficult for me to accept. I don’t suffer loss easily. When a Japanese maple withers and dies, I plunge into self-recrimination, bemoan my failures as a gardener.
Far worse, the loss of a beloved person sends me into self-absorbed waves of guilt and regret. I become obsessed with opportunities lost forever, phone calls not returned.
Maybe it’s some kind of magical thinking that prevented me from believing in the necessary impermanence of a 91-year old war hero, especially after the sudden, awful death this year of a dear and wonderful friend less than half Anna’s age.
If you had met Anna, you’d understand. The clear gray eyes of a woman who’s survived hundreds of combat missions in the bloodiest war zone in history, a Nazi POW camp, and tortures by Soviet secret policemen are the structures of Stonehenge, the craters of the moon, the Grand Tetons. Such a person seems as all-enduring as earth and stone.
And now she is gone. Last Thursday my Russian friend Lydia Yakovlevna called to tell me that Anna Alexandrovna died that morning. She was buried at Donskoi Cemetery on Monday, near a 16th Century monastery that also will not last forever.
Sunlight is angling across my backyard garden as I write this, suffusing the autumn leaves of Japanese maples and witch hazel with a golden fire. Gilded afternoon light on a shining autumn day always seems to kindle this ache for the people I miss most. Forgive me if, for comfort, I fall back on a simple poem I enjoyed as a child, by Robert Frost.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.