For Clara

By Mary Lou Sanelli

For as long as I can remember having known her, I’ve been wanting to write about Clara. I’ve been putting it off for nearly a decade because, for one thing, I live in the city now and my fondest memory of her has to do with watering my first vegetable garden in the country. And I haven’t watered a vegetable garden in far too long.

But also, I just didn’t want to write a story about Clara that she could actually read. She was a very private person.

My husband, Larry, and I used to rent a cottage from Clara on her land. One month we came up short of cash, and Clara suggested we paint the cottage in lieu of rent.

About a week later, with the scaffolding strewn all over the yard, Larry and I stood staring at our freshly painted home, Clara joining us for once. But I noticed she kept looking down at my garden instead of at the cottage. Placing her hands on her hips, she looked directly at my plants and said, “Well, from here they don’t look that bad.”

How many people would say such a thing?

Sure, it wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say. Sure, she’d pretty much ignored us until then. Sure, she’d lived in the main house for 80 years and felt she should have a say in what goes on next door. But it was nothing compared to the approval I felt when she finally walked over to stand with us. I felt “the out-of-towners” were finally being accepted. That we were finally being accepted.

I stepped closer to her.

She turned to look at me crossly. “Mary Lou, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“Really? What’s that?” I braced myself. Larry put his hand on my shoulder.

“You should water your garden in the morning.”

I smiled. But not grudgingly.

“While the ground is still cool, so the roots can handle the cold water.”

Was it true?

Somehow, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she wanted to share her lifelong knowledge, and it endeared her to me.

“But I always thought it was better to water in the evening after the sun goes down,” I said.

“No, the cold water distresses the roots when they’re still warm from the sun,” she responded.

Watering know-how has been in Clara’s family since Theodore Roosevelt was president, and everyone has a desire to share what they know with someone who’ll listen. So that’s what I did.

Larry hmmed. I could tell he wasn’t convinced.

But I was happy to take her advice. “Thank you,” I said.

As instructed, the next morning I watered first thing.

Sometimes I’d lift the hose over my head to reach Clara’s vegetables. When the spray hit, it made a splattering sound, and I’d adjust the nozzle until there was a softer mist. I’d look up and see Clara reading the paper at her kitchen table. I had 10, maybe 15 minutes of watering all in all. And hot coffee ahead of me.

I remember telling Larry that I didn’t want the watering to feel like a chore I had to hurry through, “like cleaning the bathroom,” I said.

“So don’t hurry,” he said, in the way men do when they sense a long, reflective conversation coming on 10 minutes before, say, kickoff.

But I didn’t read anything into his clipped answer. I knew it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that the scaffolding was still scattered about and Clara was about to crack down.

Neighbors can teach you a lot. Watering is a great way to start the day. The best.

Mary Lou Sanelli works as a writer and speaker. Her new title, A Woman Writing, will be released this fall. See more of her work at

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