Gardening - and gardeners - helped to ease a widow's grief

After her husband died suddenly at age 48, Mandy Swope's brain wouldn't stop. The tape loop went like this: "John's dead. John's dead."

Three and a half years later, Swope, now 48 herself and still living in the couple's Malvern home with their 14-year-old daughter, has finally emerged from the deep grief that once paralyzed her emotions.

Swope's recovery is due in part to the passage of time and a compassionate therapist. Another part involves flowers - and the friendship of fellow gardeners.

"I get goose bumps talking about it," she says.

A former insurance executive who became an interior designer, Swope joined the Four Counties Garden Club in 2006, little realizing that when John died, "this wonderful group of women" would become a lifeline - and change her life.

They enveloped her with love and support, plied her with fancy coffee, and walked and talked with her. There was much to talk about.

John, who suffered from sleep apnea and other ailments, had finally been persuaded to get checked out by a doctor. He died in his sleep three days before - and was buried the day of - that appointment, adding layers of complexity to Swope's anguish.

Her club friends responded as only gardeners can. They took Swope to Chanticleer, the public garden in Wayne, and plant wholesalers in Lancaster County. They brought gifts of red and yellow rose bushes, and an Eastern redbud tree.

"They even swept my front porch," Swope says.

Noted floral designer Jane Godshalk of Haverford, a club member, was well aware of the healing power of flowers and suggested Swope enroll in her introductory course at Longwood Gardens.

"For those three hours a week, the wheels in my brain stopped spinning," Swope recalls. "This peace came over me."

Recovery continued apace, with the club ladies enlisting Swope's help organizing horticulture programs and flower show preparations. Then, incredibly, a new career began to emerge: Swope enrolled in the horticultural therapy program at Temple University Ambler and began doing volunteer hort therapy at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital and elsewhere.

Before long, Swope realized that working with plants wasn't just therapeutic for patients who'd had strokes, head injuries, hip or knee replacements. Just as her mentor Godshalk had intended, Swope says, "it was therapy for me, too."

Last week, about a half-dozen garden club members - the group draws from Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties - gathered at Swope's house for some of that "therapy." It took the form of making ornaments for holiday trees, tabletop arrangements or wreaths from natural objects, many foraged from Swope's five acres - grasses, cattails and seed pods, broomcorn, teasel and sweet-gum balls, fern fronds, pussy willow, pine cones, bark, berries, and acorns.

Swope's floral designs tend to be "big, fat, showy, tall and structural, with a lot of movement and color." On this day, however, the group is in mini-mode, crafting small angels, birds, reindeer - and entities less easily identified - from things that are brown and dry.

"Go! Be creative," Swope says.

Money plant "coins" and milkweed pods make Disney-esque wings. Pussy willow catkins double as tails, berries as eyes. With Christmas carols playing in the background, the group is both festive and focused.

They hear updates on the niece in Hoboken who was flooded out by Sandy, the husband in the midst of chemo, the downsizing from big house to condo or retirement community.

Mostly retired now, the group includes a former art teacher and others who worked in commercial real estate, finance, and sales.

"These are strong, fantastic people. They aren't a bunch of snooty women wearing white gloves," Swope says of the stubborn garden-club stereotype that even she believed at first.

Like old friends everywhere, they tease one another with abandon. "That looks more like an airplane than a bird," says one. "Your angel looks like an ant," says another, prompting her target to respond, "I respect ants."

Innocent banter, but two hours later, Pam Smyth, a member from Coatesville who's retired from Wall Street, comments, "This is the only time in the last two weeks that I haven't felt anxious."

Swope winks. "This is hort therapy," she whispers.

While losing her husband remains "a huge scar across my heart . . . the wound has healed," says Swope, who's been dating "a very nice man" for a year now.

She is grateful to have her daughter, her family, and yes, her flowers and her garden club friends. "Meeting this group has had a big impact on my life," she says.

Not to read too much into things, though Swope would be the first to embrace the symbolism . . .

As the women finish up the Christmas critters and prepare to rejoin the world of stress and obligation, strains of "Joy to the World" drift through the house.

And outside, on the neatly swept porch.

 


Mandy Swope explains how she uses natural materials in her floral designs and holiday decorations.

www.philly.com/ginny


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.