by Esther Darlington MacDonald
An enormous horse chestnut tree in full blossom is a sight to behold. Especially in a desert like ours. And put a wooden fence beside it, weathered but still upright, and a fence across the lane from the tree, with a kitchen garden and a handsome woman on her knees weeding and gathering kale for the noon day soup, and the cottage on the corner with its garden of shrubs and flowers (where the library sits today), and you have a glimpse of the end of Brink Lane as it was 30 years ago.
Across Brink lane there was another cottage. It was the home of Henry and Ruth Leong. In Henry and Ruth Leong’s yard, where the horse chestnut grew, a long patch of fragrant Lily Of The Valley grew along the cottage wall. The light was just right for them. Shadey, with patches of sunlight in late afternoon. The front of the cottage faced the long view of the river and the bridge. And alongside the cottage facing the creamy white fans across the river, perched a weather-blackened shed. “The garden shed,” Henry called it, where the rakes and shovels and pitchforks were stored. And near the backdoor of the cottage, stood an oil drum for garden litter.
Una Godau was the handsome woman, then middle aged, working in the kitchen garden. And one day, while watching me watch her working in the patch, she suggested I have a garden. But she knew I could not have one where we were renting at the time.
“Let me ask Henry if he would let you use his backyard for a garden.” And she did.
Henry at that time was just under 6 feet tall. There was a dignified bearing in this man who had been born in Ashcroft 70-odd years before. Retired now, Henry had been a trucker, transporting vegetables to the Lower Mainland’s larger centers. He’d worked for his father and he’d grown up in the village’s China Town. A village within a village. But the Chinese village was just two blocks long and stood with its high board fences and its simple frame houses and cottages, sheds and garden patches, on either side of Railway St., the town’s main street.
Henry was the youngest son of his father’s youngest wife. If I remember correctly, Henry’s father had four wives. And they all lived together in China Town. Yes, it was a different age altogether. The Chinese kept pretty much to themselves, because they more or less had to. They bonded together in mutual enterprise. Farmers, merchants, laborers. They had their own graveyard. The graveyard in recent years restored. It sits beside the CPR rail track on a bit of a bench. In 1973, the graveyard was a forgotten patch of weeds, cracked earth, cactus and sagebrush.
Anyway, back to the request for a garden for Esther.
“I’ll have to have a look at her.” Henry’s exact words. In other words, he’d size this little woman up and determine in his own judgement, with no mind to being polite about it or saying the right thing, – whether he wanted to have a stranger taking over his backyard with its twist of old plum tree on the edge of it.
I walked down Brink Lane a short while later, to be “looked over” by Henry. I was nervous. Had caught a glimpse of Henry every once in a while, but had no idea who he was. I opened the gate to the yard, and found Henry standing nearby, under the shade of the horse chestnut. We talked a little, Henry puffed now and then on a cigarillo, his eyes on mine as we talked.
“What did you have in mind?” he asked.
“O, just a patch large enough to grow some tomatoes, carrots. You know.” I hesitated, because I hadn’t given any thought to what I wanted to grow. I just wanted to grow things.
Like a father in manner. Strict. No nonsense. He warned, “You’ll have to keep it weeded. I won’t have a yard full of weeds.”
I assured Henry that I would be most diligent with the weeding.
He paused for what seems more than a minute. Looked at the yard thoughtfully.
“Come with me.” He nodded toward the cottage, the garden litter barrel. I followed him, and he led me into the garden shed perched on what seemed to me a perilous edge. The floor of the shed, made of wooden slats, blackened with age, seemed equally fragile. But I followed Henry in. Found neatly stacks of garden tools in open bins.
“No need for you to bring tools. You can use these”.
I had passed muster. Pleased and relieved, I eyed the tools,
“You’ll have to dig that soil yourself,” Henry said, adding hopefully. “It’s good soil though. It’ll grow anything.”
The Leong yard was barren, weedless. Henry showed me where the hose was, the water spout. The sprinklers. I’d have my work cut out for me.
For three glorious summers, I worked that garden. Spent blissful, mindless hours, cultivating, weeding, watering. I shared half of what I grew with the Leong’s, and on several occasions, Ruth Leong would rap at the kitchen window pane, and beckon me in to have lunch. String beans, carrots, beets, tomatoes, even cauliflower, though the latter did not do well.
Picture two cottages behind wooden fences. The tall horse chestnut tree with its wide trunk of knots and furrows, its thick branches offering shade in that corner at the end of that gravel lane. And the cottages nearby behind their wooden fences. And voices heard over the fence, as I worked in my garden. And the odor of warm earth and soil moisture and grass mowed to the edge of the Lily Of The Valley, and faint whiff of Henry’s smoke from the cigarillos. And the voice of Henry calling for Ruth. He called her “Mama”, in a voice as gentle as any I have ever heard. Gentle with love, no less than that.
There are some things you can never forget. Some sights you will see forever in your mind’s eye. Some stories you will hear that you will pass on to others. Stories about a time and a place in old Ashcroft, when China Town was a bustling business place where people lived and died.
At the end of Brink Lane, China Town across the road and up a block or two, (where Safety Mart is today), was just such a place. A place of wood stoves and shops with false fronts and verandas that hung over the street, a place of highboard fences and woodsheds and garden sheds. And giant horse chestnut trees that shaded the streets and lanes. A place full of stories.