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That time I wanted to pass myself off as Joyce Carol Oates #TBT

I submitted my first piece of writing when I was seventeen, a story about my first job, working at the employee cafeteria at General Telephone where my mother was a dispatcher. Rolling the 20# white bond backed by a sheet of thin blue carbon paper into my Smith Corona, I typed it out slowly, carefully, on a piece of erasable paper—and mailed it off to Cosmopolitan along with a cover letter. Not just to any editor at Cosmo, by the way, I sent it directly to Helen Gurley Brown. 

The piece itself, meant to be comical, was full of clumsy attempts at self-effacing humor.  I strived for a similar tone in the cover letter I addressed to Brown, completely clueless that the high powered editor in chief wasn’t the one reading unsolicited manuscripts. After I signed off I added the following PS. I could have said I was Joyce Carol Oates. What I thought that would accomplish I can’t imagine. That an unsatisfactory submission would get published because of a lame joke? 

No surprise, in the SASE I’d …

Above Ground on the London Underground: Day 9 Christmas at Kew Gardens ... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

I’m taking a virtual walking tour ‘above ground’ on the London Underground. Using my Tube guide and my fitbit® device, my goal is to walk at least 10,000 steps a day roughly following along the Underground route, reporting back here on Fridays with my findings. This is Day Nine

I’ve been off track from my imaginary walking tour of London, where I’m currently meant to be following the Picadilly line but I’m unwilling to leave Richmond with its fading green grass behind. Wasn’t it just summer? And now December’s come! One more stop before I leave; Kew Gardens with its’  famous glass Palm House, the Great Pagoda, the Ruined Arch folly and the flowers. All the flowers.

Image via TheOldMapMan.com

I’m here at the wrong season for flowers, of course. The earth has shifted since Virginia Woolf first wrote about Kew Gardens almost 100 years ago, her evocation of nature on a hot July day, flower stalks tipped with red, blue or yellow petals, stirring in the summer breeze, while three different sets of visitors straggled by an oval flower bed, lost in their own worlds of secrets and dreams.

In Virginia Woolf’s story, a young man and young woman stand on the edge of the flower bed, both holding the handle of her parasol, pressing the point of it into the soft earth. On the precipice of a future together perhaps, the parasol in the earth a phallic symbol of their half-buried desired? In practical terms they ponder the price of tea. He’ll pay with a two shilling coin. How much is a two shilling coin worth I wonder,  and how does that compare to the £5 ‘tea’ is likely to cost today at the Pavilion or the Orangery. My mother would know. 

If it were July, would I pass by the same spot and recognize that blur of blooms, bright in the summer sun? Would I be able to identify the flowers—foxgloves maybe?—if I were here on a sweltering summer day—does it ever truly swelter in London?—instead of this mildly chilly afternoon in December? What’s the temperature? Low fifties. Not a snow cloud in the air. I’m from Los Angeles, low fifties is winter enough for me.

My mother would know their names, the flowers. I can see her in her faded pink short-shorts and an old white shirt of my father’s tied up at the waist, planting flowers in the rock garden that divided the upper and lower lawns of our split level house in Niagara Falls. At ten, I mostly messed around while she worked, jumping from one level to the other, poking my pinky finger into the mouths of young snap-dragons, watching as she loosened the dirt from clumps of pink and purple alyssum with her bare hands. I delivered her trowel so she could dig in close to the rocks, allowing  the trailing stems of deep blue lobelia to fall over their edges, teasing and flirtatious, like a lock of hair over a forehead, half-covering a laughing eye. Splashed nonchalantly through the garden, soft yellow calibrachoa—million bells—for contrast. The star of my mother’s rockery for me was the Portulaca—she never called them by their common name, moss roses—a trailing ground cover plant with a fleshy red stem and blossoms that bloomed pink, yellow, orange and purple all on the same miraculous little plant. In the spring, a handful of daffodils and gladioli. 

In the winter? In the winter the garden was left to itself, dormant, sleeping while the ground hardened, the first snowfall like sprinkles of powered sugar on a batch of brownies, within days the snow turning the rock garden finally into a deceptive looking snowbank of frosted white. In the winter she ordered tulips to plant under the front window, cut back the roses that bordered the driveway. December days drew my mother back inside to her books, Patti Page on the hi-fi, and sit down dinners complete with homemade desserts every single day. 

The Lucy Loveheart Collection at Kew.org

Summer flowers may be in absentia, my mother gone, but I’ll stick around to see the wintry Kew Gardens after dark, when the gardens are dressed with fairy lights for the winter nights. What would Virginia Woolf make of that I wonder? My mother would love it.

Image credit: express.co.uk

Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB 
+44 20 8332 5655

Kew Gardens short story by Virginia Woolf
via the University of Pennsylvania

Counting the Steps
Day 1-8: 80,000 steps / 35 miles (approx)

Day 9: Richmond Park to Kew Gardens    4,500 steps / 1.8   miles 
            Wandering around Kew! At least 10,000 steps / 4.25 miles

Total Imaginary Miles to Date                  94,500 steps / 41 miles 

Go to Day 10: Finding Family


Discover more British themed posts at Joy’s


  1. I love your description of your mother's garden -- I see it! And, what a pleasant sight on a cool December day.

    Now, I want to see Kew at Christmas! Clearly, I'm going to some day want to figure out how to spend part of my Christmas season in London.

  2. Sadly, I have never visited Kee Gardens but I would most certainly love to one day. We can't travel at present time and live vicariously through wonderful posts such as yours.
    The photos and video are stunning, as are your descriptions, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you! But as you can see I’m visiting London vicariously too. One day we’ll both get there for real.


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