This weekend, while attending a family reunion in a rented lakeside house, I enjoyed the most amazing sight, just a few docks away from the one in which I savored my first cup of coffee each morning. Amidst the long but narrow expanse of non-descript, neighboring docks, sat a garden, reaching out into the lake for a hundred feet or more.
Beneath this amazing, kaleidoscope display of flowering annuals was just another ordinary dock, but what this gardener did with the same space as those around him was truly remarkable. Soaking up the sun and proudly displaying its many bright, bold colors, looking at this dock was like looking at a peacock in a crowd of pigeons.
I knew I had to meet the person behind this labor of horticultural love. I grabbed my camera and marched up the street until I came to the house with the magical garden. You can’t see it from the street but you could easily tell this was the house. The front, although partially screened by a wall of dense evergreens, was every bit as charming as the back.
I knocked on the front door several times but there was no answer. Timidly, I peered around the back of the house towards the dock. There is was! My heart raced as I pondered the thought of going ahead onto the dock without the owner’s permission. It was tempting. But as much as I wanted to see this up close, I wanted to meet the gardener just as much. So I decided to try again later in the morning.
An impatient two hours later, I attempted the same maneuver. Again I sheepishly knocked on the front door. But again, there was no answer. This time, I’d be a bit more assertive as I moved towards the back of the house and to the garden beyond. As I inched closer to the dock, he caught my eye.
Enjoying his breakfast beneath the canopy of oaks and cypress trees and shrouded in hanging baskets of orchids and ferns, this was paradise! Do I seize the opportunity that may never come again? I contemplated my next move. Do I retreat, allowing him this glorious morning in undisturbed peace?
Knowing what I was about to do, I rationalized that I was sure he ate every meal there when possible and surely there were many days like this one; but not for me. This was it. Now or never, carpe diem as they say! Unaware of my presence and not wanting to startle him, I called out to get his attention before I approached.
As he looked towards my direction, I somewhat awkwardly walked over to this rather elderly gentleman with my hand extended as I tried to explain my intrusion on his peaceful Sunday morning.
“Hello sir” I said politely. “My name is Joe Lamp'l. I’m sorry for the intrusion but I just had to come over and see your beautiful garden. I hope you don’t mind”.
With a slight bit of effort, he rose from his table and approached me. “John McNeill Sr.” he said, extending his hand and peering up to me with a slightly suspicious look. Not sure if he heard what I had said the first time, I repeated my words and said it would be a thrill if he would allow me to take a closer look at his garden. I explained that I was admiring his dock from afar and that I was a passionate gardener, assuming from the looks of things that I was speaking from one to another.
This time I know he heard me. His face and body relaxed and a sparkle replaced the narrow look of suspicion from his eye. Instantly the connection was made and two strangers were suddenly kindred spirits. Within moments, I learned he was a University of North Carolina graduate with a degree in botany. Concerned with the lack of ability to make a decent living in this field, he went on to receive his pharmacist degree as well which became his lifetime profession while plants remained his passion.
Without asking, he graciously gave me the complete tour, frequently stopping to give me the details he must have sensed I craved. He truly was a plantsman, interested not only in the simple joy of gardening, but in knowing the species and varieties that were new and adaptive to his unique environment.
As we strolled the narrow dock, he mentioned that he entertained a great deal. I found that particularly interesting, considering the fact that this man was considerably beyond the years you would think for one to throw frequent parties. And I recalled just two nights earlier on a Friday evening when I first arrived and walked out onto my dock, he had quite a party going on. Although quite tame, his dock was beautifully lit, and his guests were laughing and having a wonderful time.
I learned that he opens his dock garden to the public every Friday evening between March and October. Guests bring a covered dish and enjoy the ambiance and beauty of this magical place with others, most having never met each other before. The only cost for such a special opportunity to enjoy great food and fellowship in this amazing setting is that you leave a small donation of ‘petty cash’ in the treasure chest located near the dining area.
No, these donations are not to defray the cost Mr. McNeill incurs each and every Friday night to host this event for up to 120 strangers. Like clockwork, the local children show up each Saturday morning to ‘rescue the money’ from the chest before the pirates surely find it later that day. The money is counted, noted and promptly donated to the local museum and library, unencumbered from the constraints of formal contributions.
Mr. McNeill has been retired from pharmacy for many years. At a young 88, he tells me they believe he is currently the oldest living pharmacist in the country. He showed me many pictures, including those of his family and the pharmacy he started in West Virginia many years ago.
As we toured the house, I noticed a very large container sitting upright on the counter, the type that sits on top of a water cooler. It was filled with a burgundy liquid and contained a single label. He must have caught my curious stare and he took the opportunity to enlighten me.
Eighteen years ago, at the age of 70 Mr. McNeill explained, he took a trip to Europe with his daughter. While touring the wine country of France, she made the following observation; “Dad” she said; “You’ve served in two wars, traveled the world and raised a wonderful family. Yet, you’ve never had even a single sip of alcohol. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try a taste now”.
Although I believe Mr. McNeill is still be a tea-toddler, he now makes his own wine (white and red), bottles it, stores it in his air conditioned wine cellar, and offers it to his many guests that come to visit, just as he did with me.
Two hours earlier, I knew nothing of the person behind the beautiful dock garden. Now, I found myself reluctantly having to cut my visit short, just as it seemed we were getting started! Neither of us I believe wanted to end our visit here. But I was sure my family was ready to call the police as I had been gone for so long.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit this morning. As is often the case with gardeners, a stranger one minute, a dear friend the next, I was leaving with a new friend, a great bottle of wine and a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.