Opinion: Roots, shoots and leaves: A search for meaning in Word Lady’s garden

Katherine Barber, editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, in 1998.handout

Eric Démoré is a high school teacher in Toronto.

It happens at night, silently and spontaneously. A sudden opening – the unfolding of petals. The waxy green blades, which days before had just pierced the ground on the boulevard, now produce tufts of bright purple, baby pink and vibrant cups of crimson. Inside, where the petals of fire converge, there are hints of buttery yellow. From the center threadlike stamens emerge; in the morning they probe the air like antennae.

When I walk through it in the early hours of the day, this floral spectacle of colors is bathed in sunlight. Both mysterious and perfectly natural, I am struck by a sudden curiosity to know the name of each new flower that has appeared in the garden. And I know who to ask.

It’s Katherine’s garden, that bit of land between the sidewalk and the street. His green thumb has taken care of this humble plot for three decades. Not only does she know each of its inhabitants by their care regimen, but she has all of their names (and the origins of those names) stored in a mental lexicon of the garden’s flora. She is, after all, not only an accomplished gardener, but the founding editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

Katherine Barber is the Word Lady (so named for both her profession and the title of her blog) and my neighbor. I ask him the name of a newcomer, recently emerged from underground but whose form is not yet apparent.

“These?” Katherine said, stooping down to feel the new growth, “Tulips!” Is she stunned by my ignorance? Or excited for another opportunity to light up?

She ducks again, scanning the earth for familiar friends, strange new guests, exotic weeds. “Sometimes squirrels get to the bulbs first.”

She is standing. “Nice splash of color.”

Other neighbors emerged like shoots after a long winter. The sun is a welcome warmth on our faces. This month is for stirring, for greeting the sun, for more life.

So it’s not without irony – or perhaps just a reminder of the dispassionate cycles that rule us all – that Katherine left this world after a tough and valiant battle with cancer. It was April and her tulips had just bloomed. She was 61 years old.

Katherine was a great neighbor. The day we moved in, she delivered banana bread (she was also a great baker). Later that week, the sound of my piano had to pass through the thin lath and plaster party wall that separates our houses. There was a knock at the door. A noise complaint, I thought; instead, she complimented Bach – and asked for Chopin.

Wait, what was that term – “gone” wall? Isn’t this a “shared” wall? “Common” wall? This is precisely the kind of question that Katherine enjoyed investigating. She posted her favorites on her popular blog. She had a brilliant mind and an insatiable etymological curiosity.

One day in late June, I found her in the boulevard garden, kneeling on her moss weeding mat. When I told her I was proctoring a high school exam, she let out a high-pitched laugh.

“‘Proctor’ sounds like you’re about to have a colonoscopy!” she said. The word overseer, she explained, is the cousin of proctologist. “At home, we tend to say “monitor”. Monitor, as “watch”. To monitor. »

Home was Winnipeg. It was from there, her sister later told me, that Katherine uprooted a clump of the family’s iris and transplanted it into her own garden in Toronto. And for the irises, she planted neighbors: lily of the valley and forget-me-nots, nasturtiums and peonies.

Katherine was particularly fond of flowering cosmos plants, whose sturdy stems grow as tall as a person. In July, the garden is usually teeming with them, their feathery purple and pink flowers, their bodies bending in the rain so that passers-by have to part them to make way – a sidewalk rainforest.

For 30 years, Katherine carefully maintained the garden on the boulevard. Early in the morning, when it was still cool, I found her scanning the earth, looking for her St. Michael’s daisies, new floral openings, weeds, words.

“Chrysanthemum”, I try.

She winces a little, and gently corrects: “Chrysanthechrysanthemums.”

Over the years, his plantings migrated to our side of the yard; no party walls in a garden. We sped up the process – she showed me how to transplant copious clumps of green and white leaves with small purple flowers: geraniums. Those who smell of pepper.

Over the summers, the words have also become perennial. They take root in the brain and come back in the spring: mini roses, lamium, mint.

Katherine stepped out one cool morning, making her way slowly through the patch of boulevard, which was already showing spears of new green. I watched her duck carefully into a cab. She was going to the hospital for tests. She didn’t look back. It was in April.

Later that week, the day Katherine said her last word, I walked the sidewalk to scan the earth and search for the words to describe my grief: the sadness, the imbalance, the gratitude for having met her. Is there a word to capture all three at once? Could we just call it grief? Instead, I only found buttery yellow and bursts of red, purple, pink.

Words unfold and propagate; they are heralds of intent. We don’t use them for themselves but for what they represent, for the meaning they have. With words we name the world. So we’re looking for the best ones, the words that match well enough, that do the trick.

It’s April again, and the dormant roots are stirring, bringing their new iterations. Soon the boulevard square will be filled with the leaves and stems of Katherine’s plants: lilies, peonies, daisies, sage. And those that I have trouble naming.

I will do my best to care for them, to watch their curious progress. Later, we will see forget-me-nots and passers-by graze the cosmos of the boulevard.

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