The Birth of a Passion
May your time in nature lead you to yourself.” ~Shikoba
How often in our lives are we able to pinpoint the exact (or near exact) moment when a passion was born?
Do you love movies and can rattle off a character’s dialogue? Are you an expert in art and can speak intelligently about the painting techniques and tools of the masters? Do you spend every waking moment following sports and talking stats with your co-workers? Have you been baking since your childhood and everyone begs you to make their favorite foods? Perhaps you knit so many winter hats and scarves you could outfit a small town?
Do you know the moment when your casual hobby became a passion?
I can answer yes — here’s how the start of my garden obsession began.
A Job Interview in California
My best friend and I moved to California from Pennsylvania on a whim. Well, maybe it was more the toss of a coin but that’s a story for another time. We drove to California without a job or knowing where we would live.
Yes, we were young, and potentially very stupid — the perfect time to make a 3,000 mile move.
I had enough money to enjoy the life of a beach bum from mid-May through July after we chose a small, flea-infested, two bedroom apartment near the Pacific Ocean, just one building away from the train tracks.
Each day, I walked to the beach, got sunburned, walked back home, and did the same thing all over again the next day.
Talk about a dream come true for anyone, but especially for a 20-something who had worked every single day she could from the tender age of 15. It was a much needed, and well-deserved break.
But reality soon set in as my wallet grew thinner and thinner. Eventually, my roommate, fellow PA escape artist, and I, were at the point where we were eating the kind of tuna people eat when they’re down to their last couple dollars: the store brand chunk light variety. Yuck. I still can’t eat that stuff to this day.
I started the lengthy and arduous task of looking for a job. Back in the late 80's, you had to look through the classifieds section of the newspaper, read every word (no key word filter app to count on), type a resume and cover letter, drive to the post office to buy stamps, and mail the contents to the potential future employer.
And then you waited for a response as your stomach growled and wondered whether what you wrote was going to be good enough for anyone.
My optimism was put to the test as day after day passed with no interest in my ridiculously few skills. It was at this point I realized I should have stayed in college.
An Opportunity Arises
Brrrrnnng. Brrrrnnnng. My phone broke the silence in the apartment.
“Hello?” I asked cautiously.
“Hello. Is this Catherine?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Good afternoon, Catherine. This is Ken from Altman’s. We received your resume and we’d like you to come into for an interview.”
We scheduled a meeting for the next day. I was so nervous because I had applied at B. Altman’s which was a fancy schmancy, hoidy toidy store. I never worked in that kind of retail before and thought I would enjoy working with wealthy clientele. Never mind I had no idea what the rich wanted to buy but I was young and I was certain I could figure it all out if given the chance.
The Big Day
The big day arrived and I got all decked out. I had on pantyhose, a skirt, a button down shirt, a blazer, and two-inch heels to match. I expertly applied my make-up and made my hair real big with copious amounts of hairspray — it was, after all, the 80’s.
I had the address where the interview was being held and spent the night before writing out the directions on a piece of paper after finding the best route in my trusty Thomas Brothers Guide.
I noticed that B. Altman’s was located fairly far away from my apartment but I needed a job, any job, desperately. I needed money and I would have taken anything at this point. Turned out sunshine and sun-bathing is not super fun with a quickly shrinking waistline due to hunger.
Driving to the interview, I started on the I-5 which is a busy, major north/south freeway in San Diego that runs all the way to Canada, and transitioned to the I-78 which heads east. I recall thinking, “Wow, they put an upscale mall this far out in the boonies?”
I started to panic I had written the directions down incorrectly as each exit seemed more and more remote. I had no cell phone, nor any way to check if I was heading the right way.
I decided to just keep going and see where I ended up. I decided to trust my directions. What was the worst thing that could happen?
Soon, I was getting off the freeway and heading toward a rural area full of cows and wide open spaces. Barns were far more prevalent than the parking structures I had been expecting. Uh-oh.
I was growing more and more concerned about my mapping abilities.
I made a left onto the street I was to interview on with my heart thumping hard in my chest. I stopped in front of the address I was given: 553 Buena Creek Road. It was a long driveway that led to an older white house.
I drove up the driveway and parked in what could be considered a parking lot but without any of the telltale signs like white lines.
There appeared to be a great deal of activity and people surrounding me so I got out of my car. I picked up my purse from the passenger seat that matched my bright red pumps, grabbed a copy of my resume, and headed toward the painted sign that said ‘Office.’
My heels sank into the mud with every step I took until I trained myself on the fly how to walk on the balls of my feet.
I opened the door and all office work stopped. The secretaries looked up from what they were doing with questioning and deeply wary eyes. Who was this intruder and what did she want?
Then one of the ladies asked if she could help me. She wasn’t super nice but she wasn’t mean either. She appeared to be terribly weary of her job.
I stammered that I was there to interview with Ken.
She seemed to know who I was talking about and went to retrieve Ken from God knows where.
Soon after I was greeted by Ken who grabbed my hand and shook it. Ken’s appearance struck me not by the fact that he wore round Lennon-like glasses and had all his hair, but that he was wearing dirty shorts, dusty sneakers, and a sweaty polo to interview me. He also had his unwashed dog, Suzy, trailing behind him. Little did I know how much Suzy meant to Ken. She was already so old by the time of my interview but Ken was her person, and he was equally smitten with her.
Ken observed, “You’re so dressed up!” and I blushed as each office employee chimed in their same reaction to me. After all, they were in jeans and t-shirts at work — very informal and probably long before Casual Friday was a thing.
The Right Place
Ken showed me to his office which was a filthy, disorganized mess with plants in the kind of black pots found in nurseries. There were also flats of ground-cover lying appropriately on the ground, but inappropriately on a flat, well-worn beige carpet.
Ken pointed to a chair and told me to have a seat.
I tried to hand him my resume but he put up his hand and said he already had it in his hand.
My interview was the shortest interview on record. Essentially, he was impressed that I had simply shown up. That was the only skill I apparently needed. Ken was desperate for more office staff. So many of the people he called to schedule interviews with hadn’t shown up and hadn’t bothered to call to cancel their appointments.
I was hired on the spot and I was told to start in the morning. Kathy would train me.
Of course I said yes, not asking anything about the position like the pay, the benefits, the paid holidays, or what I’d be doing for eight hours every day.
I was desperate and needed the paycheck; nothing else mattered. I drove all the way home chuckling about the mistake I had inadvertently made — here I thought I was interviewing at B. Altman’s, an upscale shopping experience, but I got the job at Altman Plants with mud stubbornly clinging to my heels.
Best mistake ever.
A Passion is Born
For the next year or so, I worked at Altman Specialty Plants — a very far cry from B. Altman’s where I thought I was interviewing. But this is the very spot where my passion for gardens was born.
Before my time at Altman’s, plants were only something pretty my mom had far too many of and were an annoyance to move every single time we went from one house to the next.
What I learned about plants while at Altman’s is they are sometimes (okay, let’s be honest, frequently) preferable to humans. Plants take so little care to grow, are faithful, loyal, quiet but listen as long as you want to talk, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, smells, and they won’t leave you for someone prettier, more intelligent, wealthier, or slimmer.
The plants brought peace to my life while also bringing their incredible beauty and calming influence.
My passion for plants started quietly but grew steadily like a passionflower vine. Now no matter where I go in the world, I must visit the gardens of the area. Many places I’ve visited multiple times because their plants and the creativity of their gardeners are not to be believed.
Where were you when your fire for something was lit? Do you remember the day when it all began?